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Bison move to native land revives spiritual connection – Chicago Tribune

BULLE HOLLOW, Okla. — Ryan Mackey quietly chanted a sacred Cherokee poem as he pulled a handful of tobacco from his zipper pouch. Pulling himself over a barbed wire fence, he scattered leaves in a pasture where a herd of bison, commonly known as American buffalo, grazed in northeastern Oklahoma.

The donation was a reverent act of gratitude, the 45-year-old explained, and a desire to establish a divine connection with the animals, his ancestors and the Creator.

“When tobacco is used the right way, it’s almost like a contract between you and the spirit — the spirit of our Creator, the spirit of these bison,” Mackey said as a strong wind roared across the grassy field. “Everything, they say, has a spiritual aspect. Just like this wind, we can feel it in our hands, but we cannot see it.”

Decades after the last bison disappeared from their tribal lands, the Cherokee Nation is part of a nationwide indigenous revival that seeks to reconnect with the humped, shaggy animals that hold an important place in centuries of tradition and belief.

Since 1992, the federal Intertribal Buffalo Council has helped relocate surplus bison from places like South Dakota’s Badlands National Park, Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park, and Arizona’s Grand Canyon National Park to 82 member tribes in 20 states.

“Combined, these tribes manage more than 20,000 buffalo on tribal lands,” said Troy Heinert, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe who is executive director of the Rapid City, South Dakota-based Intertribal Buffalo Council. “Our goal and mission is to bring buffalo back to Indian Country for the cultural and spiritual connection that Native peoples have with buffalo.”

Centuries ago, an estimated 30 to 60 million bison roamed the vast Great Plains of North America, from Canada to Texas. But by 1900, European settlers had nearly wiped out the species, hunting them en masse for their valuable pelts and often leaving their carcasses to rot on the prairies.

“It’s important to know what history the indigenous people had with the buffalo and how the buffalo were almost exterminated. … Now with the resurgence of buffalo, often led by indigenous peoples, we’re seeing a spiritual and cultural awakening that comes with it,” said Heinert, who is a state senator from South Dakota.

Historically, indigenous peoples hunted and used all parts of bison: for food, clothing, shelter, tools, and ceremonial purposes. But they considered bison not just a commodity, but creatures closely related to people.

“Many tribes saw them as relatives,” Heinert said. “You will find it in the rites, the language, and the songs.”

Rosalyn LaPierre, a Native American writer and scholar who grew up on the Blackfeet reservation in Montana, said different peoples of the Great Plains have different mythological stories about the bison’s origins.

“Depending on which indigenous group you talk to, bison took place in the supernatural realm and ended up on Earth for human use,” said LaPierre, an environmental historian and ethnobotanist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “And there’s usually some story about how people were taught to hunt bison and kill bison and harvest them.”

Her tribe, the Blackfeet, for example, believes there are three realms: heaven, the underworld—that is, Earth—and the underwater world. Tribal lore, LaPierre says, states that the Blackfeet were vegetarian until an orphaned bison slipped out of the underwater world in human form and was taken in by two caring people. As a result, the magical leader of the underwater bison allowed more to come to Earth to be hunted and eaten.

In Oklahoma, the Cherokee Nation, one of the largest Indian tribes with 437,000 registered members, had a few bison on their land in the 1970s. But they disappeared.

The tribe’s modern herd didn’t begin until 40 years later, when a large cattle trailer driven by Heinert arrived with 38 bison from Badlands National Park in the fall of 2014. He was greeted with emotional songs and prayers from the tribesmen.

“I still remember the dew that was on the grass and the singing of the birds that were in the trees. …I could feel hope and pride for the Cherokee people that day,” Heinert said.

Since then, births and additional bison transplants from various locations have increased the population to about 215. The herd roams a 500-acre (2-square-kilometer) pasture in Bull Hole, an unincorporated area of ​​Delaware County about 70 miles (113 kilometers) northeast of Tulsa, near the town of Kenwood.

For now, the Cherokee are not hunting the animals, whose bulls can weigh up to 2,000 pounds (900 kilograms) and stand 6 feet (nearly 2 meters) tall, as leaders focus on expanding the herd. But bison, a lean protein, could serve as a future food source for Cherokee schools and food centers, said Brian Warner, the tribe’s deputy chief chief.

“We’re really hoping not just for food sovereignty, but to really reconnect our citizens spiritually,” said Warner, a member of the United Methodist Church.

That reconnection, in turn, leads to discussions about other fauna, he added, from rabbits and turtles to quail and pigeons.

“All these different animals – it makes you more in tune with nature,” he said as bison strolled by a nearby pond. “And then, essentially, it puts you more in tune with yourself because we all come from the same dirt that these animals are made from—from our Creator.”

Originally from the southeastern United States, the Cherokees were forced to move to present-day Oklahoma in 1838 after gold was discovered on their ancestral lands. The 1,000-mile (1,600-kilometer) journey, known as the Trail of Tears, claimed nearly 4,000 lives due to disease and harsh travel conditions.

While bison are more closely related to Great Plains tribes than those with roots on the East Coast, the recently arrived Cherokee had ties to a slightly smaller subspecies, according to Mackie. The animals on the tribe’s lands today are not direct descendants, he explained, but close cousins ​​with whom the tribe may have a spiritual connection.

“We don’t speak the same language as bison,” Mackay said. “But when you sit with them and spend time with them, relationships can be built in … other ways than just language: sharing experiences, sharing the same space, and just a sense of respect. Your body language changes when you respect someone or something.”

Maki grew up with Pentecostal roots on his father’s side and Baptists on his mother’s side. He still attends church occasionally, but finds more meaning in Cherokee ceremonial practices.

“Even if (tribal members) are raised in a church or synagogue or wherever they choose to worship, their elders are Cherokee elders,” he said. “And this idea of ​​relationship, respect and care – with the earth, with the Earth, with all those things that live on it – it is transmitted. It still embraces our identity as Cherokee people.”

That’s why he believes bringing bison back to Cherokee lands is so important.

“Bison are not just meat,” he said. “They represent wealth, health and strength.”

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