Perched atop a fence at Badlands National Park, Troy Heinert peered from beneath his wide-brimmed hat into a corral where 100 wild bison awaited transfer to the Rosebud Indian Reservation.
Descendants of bison that once roamed North America’s Great Plains by the 10s of millions, the animals would soon thunder up a chute, take a truck ride across South Dakota, and join one of many burgeoning herds Heinert has helped reestablish on Native American lands.
Heinert nodded in satisfaction to a park service employee as the animals stomped their hooves and kicked up dust in the cold wind. He took a brief call from Iowa about another herd being transferred to tribes in Minnesota and Oklahoma, then spoke with a fellow trucker about yet more bison destined for Wisconsin.
By nightfall, the last of the American buffalo shipped from Badlands were being unloaded at the Rosebud reservation, where Heinert lives. The next day, he was on the road back to Badlands to load 200 bison for another tribe, the Cheyenne River Sioux.
Most bison in North America are in commercial herds, treated no differently than cattle.
“Buffalo, they walk in two worlds,” Heinert said. ”Are they commercial or are they wildlife? From the tribal perspective, we’ve always deemed them as wildlife, or to take it a step further, as a relative.”
Some 82 tribes across the United States—from New York to Alaska—now have more than 20,000 bison in 65 herds. And that’s been growing in recent years along with the desire among Native Americans to reclaim stewardship of an animal their ancestors lived alongside and depended upon for millennia.
European settlers destroyed that balance when they slaughtered the great herds. Bison almost went extinct until conservationists, including Teddy Roosevelt, intervened to reestablish a small number of herds largely on federal lands. Native Americans were sometimes excluded from those early efforts carried out by conservation groups.
Such groups more recently partnered with tribes, and some are now stepping aside. The long-term dream for some Native Americans: return bison on a scale rivaling herds that roamed the continent in numbers that shaped the landscape itself.
Heinert, 50, a South Dakota state senator and director of the InterTribal Buffalo Council, views his job in practical terms: Get bison to tribes that want them, whether 2 animals or 200. He helps them rekindle long-neglected cultural connections, increase food security, reclaim sovereignty, and improve land management. This fall, Heinert’s group has moved 2,041 bison to 22 tribes in 10 states.
“All of these tribes relied on them at some point, whether that was for food or shelter or ceremonies. The stories that come from those tribes are unique to those tribes,” he said. “Those tribes are trying to go back to that, reestablishing that connection that was once there and was once very strong.”
Bison for centuries set rhythms of life for the Lakota Sioux and many other nomadic tribes that followed their annual migrations. Hides for clothing and tepees, bones for tools and weapons, horns for ladles, hair for rope—a steady supply of bison was fundamental.
At so-called buffalo jumps, herds would be run off cliffs, then butchered over days and weeks. Archaeologists have found immense volumes of bones buried at some sites, suggesting processing on a major scale.
European settlers and firearms brought a new level of industry to the enterprise as hunters, U.S. troops, and tourists shot bison and a growing commercial market used their parts in machinery, fertilizer, and clothing. By 1889, few bison remained: 10 animals in central Montana, 20 each in central Colorado and southern Wyoming, 200 in Yellowstone National Park, some 550 in northern Alberta and about 250 in zoos and private herds.
Piles of buffalo skulls seen in haunting photos from that era illustrate an ecological and cultural disaster.
“We wanted to populate the western half of the United States because there were so many people in the East,” U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American cabinet member, said in an interview. “They wanted all of the Indians dead so they could take their land away.”
The thinking at the time, she added, was “‘if we kill off the buffalo, the Indians will die. They won’t have anything to eat.’”
The day after the bison transfer from the Badlands, Heinert’s son T.J. sprawled flat on the ground, his rifle scope fixed on a large bull bison at the Wolakota Buffalo Range. The tribal enterprise in just two years has restored about 1,000 bison to 28,000 acres (11,300 hectares) of rolling, scrub-covered hills near the Nebraska–South Dakota border.
Pausing to pull a cactus paddle from the back of his hand, Heinert looked back through the scope. The 28-year-old had been talking all morning about the need for a perfect shot and the difficulty in 40-mile (64-kilometer) an hour winds. The first bullet went into the animal’s ear, but it lumbered away a couple hundred yards to join a larger group of bison, with the hunter following in an all-terrain vehicle.
Two more shots, then after the animal finally went down, Heinert drove up close and put the rifle behind its ear for a final shot that stopped its thrashing. “Definitely not how it’s supposed to go,” Heinert kept repeating, disappointed it wasn’t an instant kill. “But we got him down. That’s all that matters at this point.”
Coinciding with widespread extermination of bison, tribes such as the Lakota were robbed of land through broken treaties that by 1889 whittled down the “Great Sioux Reservation” established in 1851 to several much smaller ones across the Dakotas. Without bison, tribal members relied on government “beef stations” that distributed meat from cattle ranches.
The program was a boon for white ranchers. Today, Cherry County, Nebraska—along Rosebud reservation’s southern border—boasts more cattle than any other U.S. county.
Removing fences that crisscross ranches there and opening them to bison is unlikely, but Rosebud Sioux are intent on expanding the reservation’s herds as a reliable food source.
Others have grander visions: The Blackfeet of Montana and tribes in Alberta want to establish a “transboundary herd” ranging over the Canada border near Glacier National Park. Other tribes propose a “buffalo commons” on federal lands in central Montana where the region’s tribes could harvest animals.
“What would it look like to have 30 million buffalo in North America again?” said Cristina Mormorunni, a Métis Indian who’s worked with the Blackfeet to restore bison.
With so many people, houses, and fences now, Haaland said there’s no going back completely. But her agency has emerged as a primary bison source, transferring more than 20,000 to tribes and tribal organizations over 20 years, typically to thin government-controlled herds so they don’t outgrow their land.
“It’s wonderful tribes are working together on something as important as bison that were almost lost,” Haaland said.
Transfers sometimes draw objections from cattle ranchers who worry bison carry disease and compete for grass. Such fears long inhibited efforts to transfer Yellowstone National Park bison.
Interior officials work with state officials make sure relocated bison meet local veterinary health requirements. But they generally don’t vaccinate the animals and handle them as little as possible.
Bison demand from the tribes is growing, and Haaland said transfers will continue. That includes up to 1,000 being trucked this year from Badlands, Grand Canyon National Park, and several national wildlife refuges. Others come from conservation groups and tribes that share surplus bison.
Back at Wolakota range, Daniel Eagle Road approached the bison shot by T.J. Heinert. Eagle Road rested a hand on the animal’s head. Heinert got out some chewing tobacco, tucked some behind his lip, and passed the tin to Eagle Road, who did the same. Heinert sprinkled tobacco along the bison’s back and prayed.
Chains fastened around the front and hind legs, the half-ton animal was hoisted onto a flatbed truck for the bouncy ride to ranch headquarters. About 20 adults and children gathered as the bison was lowered onto a tarp, then listened solemnly to tribal elder Duane Hollow Horn Bear.
“This relative gave of itself to us, for our livelihood, our way of life,” Horn Bear said.
Soon the tarp was covered with bloody footprints from people butchering the animal. They quartered it, sawing through bone, then sliced meat from the legs, rump, and the animal’s huge hump. Children, some only six, were given knives to cut away skin and fat.
The adults took turns dipping pieces of kidney in the animal’s gall bladder bile. “Like salsa,” someone called out as others laughed.
The stomach was washed out for use in soup. The pelt was scraped and spread on a railing to dry. The skull was cleaned and the tongue, a delicacy, cut out.
Then came an assembly line of slicing, grinding, and packaging of meat distributed to families through a food program run by the tribal agency that operates the ranch. The work lasted into the night.
A first for many, the harvest illustrates a challenge for the Rosebud Sioux and other tribes: Few people have butchering skills and cultural knowledge to establish a personal connection with bison.
Katrina Fuller, who helped guide the butchering, dreams of training others so the reservation’s 20 communities can come to Wolakota for their own harvest. “Maybe not now, but in my lifetime,” she said. “That’s what I want for everyone.”
Horn Bear, 73, said when he was very young his grandparents told him creation stories revolving around bison. But then he was forcibly enrolled in an Indian boarding school—government-backed institutions where tribal traditions were stamped out with beatings and other cruelties. The bison were already gone, and the schools sought to erase the stories of them too.
Standing on the blood-spattered tarp, Horn Bear said the harvest brings back what was almost totally taken away—his people’s culture, economy, social fabric.
“It’s like coming home to a way of life,” he said.