Will Lakota find self-determination in a buffalo herd?
By Juan Espinoza
Editor, Pueblo Chieftain
Published: Sunday October 10, 200
Finally, some good news out of Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Buffalo are coming home to the Buffalo Nation.
Recently, The Pueblo Chieftain reported on the donation of a small buffalo herd from a Rye rancher to an Oglala Lakota family. The herd brings to 11 the number of Lakota families who have returned to their land to raise buffalo.
Henry Red Cloud, a fifth-generation descendant of Chief Red Cloud, the 19th-century warrior/statesman, came to Southern Colorado with a small delegation two weeks ago to accept the buffalo donated to them by Pueblo surgeon Ken Danylchuk and his wife, Kathy.
The donation had been arranged by David Bartecchi, son of Pueblo doctor Carl Bartecchi. David works for Village Earth, co-founded by Maurice Albertson, who created the model for the U.S. Peace Corps in the 1960s.
As director of the Pine Ridge Project for Village Earth, David has become a central figure in the effort to rebuild the Lakota buffalo herds. He told his dad about the campaign, his dad told the Danylchuks, and the Danylchuks agreed to contribute a few head of buffalo to the effort.
David said the effort to reintroduce buffalo to the reservation is a simple question of making the best use of the land the Lakota have. Many people own 200 or more acres of land, but live in impoverished housing clusters while their land is leased to ranchers and farmers for as little as 50 cents an acre per year.
More than a symbol, the buffalo are seen as one means of obtaining self-sufficiency for the families who choose to leave the mostly substandard housing in the villages and return to their land.
The idea has caught on to the point that the Oglala Lakota College at Pine Ridge is building an agricultural curriculum around raising buffalo and developing its own herd.
Red Cloud said the return of the sacred buffalo represents new hope for a new generation: “This is what we understand. We know the buffalo. Combined with all that we honor – sun, wind, four directions – it’s all part of the Lakota spirituality.”
Ed Iron Cloud, the recipient of the seed herd, accompanied Red Cloud to the Danylchuks’ ranch. Like Red Cloud, Iron Cloud said the Lakota have a spiritual bond with the buffalo. He was careful in selecting the buffalo he took to Pine Ridge, explaining that it was important to take a family unit so they would be accepted faster by the buffalo already there.
Iron Cloud spoke of the buffalo’s superiority over cattle. Even the shape of their hooves helps break up the hard prairie sod better than cattle, he said. Let cattle near a waterhole and they will eat the grass nearest the water down to the bare ground. Buffalo will eat the grass farther away and save the grass near the water to lie on, Iron Cloud said.
Iron Cloud told a story demonstrating the buffaloes’ legendary protectiveness for their young. In the story, a group of bulls is observed moving in a tight circle through a pack of wolves. When the circle of bulls reaches the herd, a small calf is seen emerging from its midst.
It is too soon to know if the return of the buffalo will create a new self-sufficiency for the 3,100 residents of Pine Ridge. The families who now have herds have pledged to help other families start herds. Their children can learn the necessary skills at the local college. In time, the families should be able to produce a healthy, natural source of meat.
The circle is complete. Fourteen years ago, Ken Danylchuk brought a seed herd of buffalo from South Dakota. Now, a few head of the coveted animals have returned to the people who worship them and the way of life they represent.
Perhaps the shaggy beasts can do what government welfare programs and federal subsidies have failed to do – bring peace, harmony and self-sufficiency to the Buffalo Nation.
Those of us hoping the Lakotas’ buffalo program is successful owe a debt of gratitude to the Danylchuks and Bartecchis for their roles in instilling the newfound optimism apparent among Red Cloud, Iron Cloud and others in their delegation.
Juan Espinosa, who was born when millions of buffalo-head nickels roamed the land, is a Chieftain night city editor. He can be reached at 544-3520, ext. 423, or by e-mail at [email protected] .