by Gary Wockner
Originally published in
News From Indian Country
As the buffalo truck turned off Route 18 and down onto the long lane north of Pine Ridge Village, Henry Red Cloud stood arm-in-arm with his brother, Chief Alfred Red Cloud II, watching from across the field. Henry’s eyes misted over. “This is our dream,” he said. “My family’s, my people’s.”
Seconds later, the truck eased to a stop and 50 people rushed over, jumping on the fender wells and peering, wide-eyed, through the aluminum slats of the stock trailer. The crowd, family members and visitors who had came to honor and celebrate the return of the buffalo, cheered and embraced. Inside the trailer, 15 yearling buffalo peered back, their late-spring fur molting and falling, their eyes also wide.
Chief Alfred Red Cloud II stood silently, watching. Alfred is the great, great grandson of Chief Red Cloud, the last of the Lakota Chiefs to be captured in 1876 nearby at Fort Robinson, Nebraska, and then “relocated” to the Pine Ridge Reservation. Henry and Alfred embraced. “This is for our children,” Albert said. “For our future.”
For the past year, the Red Cloud family has been working side-by-side with the Fort Collins, Colo. environmental organization, Village Earth (www.villageearth.org), and their extensive international membership, to return the buffalo to the family’s property on Pine Ridge. David Bartecchi, project coordinator for Village Earth, says, “This is about social justice, environmental stewardship, and creating a more sustainable world. It is our honor to assist the Red Cloud family with this project.”
The arrival of the buffalo to Henry’s property near Pine Ridge Village was the centerpiece event of the first day of a two-day celebration hosted by the Red Cloud family. Earlier in the day, a variety of activities took place including traditional Lakota story-telling, games, songs and dance.
Two well-known storytellers, Philomene Lakota and Wilmer Stampede demonstrated the skill of oral tradition by sharing stories of traditional Lakota life and spirituality.
Later, Lawrence Swalley offered a stirring, lengthy rendition of the Lakota Creation Story. After a tasty dinner of buffalo stew and fry bread, the evening was filled with hand games, and dancing and singing led by the Yellow Bear Drum Group and the Crazy Horse Singers.
The next morning, all the guests and many reservation residents followed the buffalo truck on a long caravan out to the Red Cloud family ranch near the Slim Buttes area of the reservation. The family named their property “Tatanka Isnala” (Lone Buffalo Ranch) to commemorate Henry and Albert’s nephew, Arnold Big Crow, who recently died.
The ceremony at the ranch included Oglala spiritual leader Basil Brave Heart, who performed a traditional buffalo blessing ceremony that involves the filling and sharing of the sacred pipe, smudging, and the performance of buffalo songs, dances and prayers.
Just before the buffalo were released, Chief Alfred Red Cloud II walked arm-in-arm with his grand-niece, Shekela Big Crow (Arnold’s only daughter), across the family’s property commemorating the last moment before the return of the buffalo. Shekela is the 7th generation of Red Clouds to live on Pine Ridge since Chief Red Cloud’s 1876 relocation.
Minutes later, 15 yearling buffalo were released. The crowd, now 200-strong and including three busloads of Pine Ridge school children, cheered and embraced as the yearling buffalo rumbled out of the livestock trailer and across the open prairie. After more than 125 years, the Red Cloud family ranch, once part of the buffalo’s traditional migration routes across the Great Plains, again felt the thunder of buffalo hooves.
The buffalo release represents one part of Village Earth’s larger initiative to help Lakota families utilize their own land for income-generating activities to support a more self-sufficient lifestyle. The buffalo were purchased through Village Earth’s “Adopt-a-Buffalo” program.
These 15 yearlings will be the “seed herd” from which more herds will come for Lakota families interested in buffalo ranching. The herd will be raised in a traditional manner using organic methods. After three years, this initial herd will have bred enough calves for a second group of yearlings to be “gifted” to another family to start their own herd. The animals will be used for food, clothing, education and ceremonial purposes.
“The plan is to get this herd started, and then make a gift of yearlings to another family to get their herd started, and so on,” said Henry Red Cloud. “It’s part of the healing for the Lakota family, a return to “tradition,” by which our elders meant “self-sufficiency.”
Henry Red Cloud is launching this initial herd, and several other projects, on land owned by his extended family. All 94 members of the Red Cloud extended family have combined their landholdings at the ranch and are actively involved in making it a successful, income-generating, self-supportive prospect.
In addition to buffalo ranching, the Red Clouds are growing herbs and vegetables for family consumption as well as moneymaking crops, a model of enterprise that Henry says other reservation families are considering.
Throughout the celebration at Henry’s property and at the family ranch near Slim Buttes, Henry, Alfred and all of the speakers emphasized the importance of the event for Lakota children.
“I want all of the children to watch and listen,” Henry said as he spoke to the crowd during the buffalo release. “They need to know that we have suffered greatly but that we are strong and resilient. This ceremony and these buffalo will teach our children that we are returning to health and vitality.”
“Buffalo can heal us. We can heal each other. At the dawn of the 21st Century, we stand here, seven generations since Chief Red Cloud’s capture, to make a powerful statement: We are strong. The Lakota people, families and individuals have a strong future together.”
FMI: Henry Red Cloud: 605.867.1544, [email protected]
David Bartecchi: 970.218.5157, [email protected]
Gary Wockner: 970.407.1163, [email protected]