Lakota Buffalo Caretakers: A New Paradigm of Agriculture?

3685767798_2b6ec9f73e_bIt is not difficult to argue the case that modern agriculture has reached a crisis stage. We have reached a point where must accept that change must occur, where common-place practices must abandoned, where long established institutions collapse, and ultimately, a new paradigm emerges. It could also be argued that the crisis we are experiencing in modern agriculture is part of a larger crisis evidenced by global warming, the burgeoning divisions between rich and poor, and most recently, the collapse of global capital markets. This can be a disquieting time indeed since, while its clear that change must occur, nobody is quite sure what that change will look like. Speaking about the broader global transition taking place, Colombian born Anthropologist, Arturo Escobar has argued that “Epistemologically this move entails a transition from the dominance of modern science to a plural landscape of knowledge forms. Socially, the transition is between global capitalism and emergent forms of which we only have glimpses in today’s social movements.” Rather, he argues that the emerging social movements, like the growing indigenous rights movement, represents the best hope for reworking many of the problems faced by global capitalism.

In a small way, with our work on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, we are seeing how this “reworking” can manifest. In particular, some of the challenges we have faced in developing a market and supply chain for meat from buffalo raised by a cooperative of Lakota Producers. While, Village Earth has been working to support Lakota buffalo caretakers on Pine Ridge since early 2003, it wasn’t until 2006 when they started talking about forming a cooperative. Over the next few years we had numerous meetings, did our homework, drafted bylaws and articles of incorporation, and by August of 2008 the coop was officially recognized in the State of South Dakota. Less than four months later, the cooperative filled the first order under its label “Lakota Buffalo Caretakers Cooperative (LBCC).” To facilitate distribution in northern Colorado (where the best market exists) we helped establish a independently managed L.L.C. Called “Allied Natural Meats.” While it has been less than a year where the coop has been selling its products on the market, we have already learned a great deal where the points of conflict exist between the old paradigm of raising and selling meat, and possibly a new paradigm emerging from the LBCC but informed at a deeper level by the Lakota worldview.

In the dominant paradigm, most livestock, spend only the first six months of their lives in open pastures. After that time they are moved to feedlots where they often have less than 13 square-feet of space per animal, fed a mixture of high-fat grain and ground-up poultry waste until the age of 14 months where they are trucked-off to slaughter houses for processing. While we all may be familiar with this process for cattle, these same practices are bleeding into the buffalo industry, as evidenced by the buffalo feedlot that is being built soon Weld county Colorado, just a few miles from Village Earth’s offices. In fact, most buffalo sold in stores (even health food stores), often spend the last 90 days in a feedlot and then trucked to a slaughter facility, even when they say “grass fed” on the label.

In the Lakota worldview, Buffalo are sacred, and killing one is comparable to killing a human. In fact, one elder explained this to me once by pointing to group of people talking around a fire and asked, “what do you think would happen to the social order of that group over there if we killed three of them?” It is this worldview that makes the notion of sending one to a feedlot an abomination. The Lakota alternative to this is raising buffalo their entire lives on open pastures and respectfully ending their lives in the field. In fact, some families have made this into a sort of right of passage for young men on the reservation, preparing them in ceremony to take the life of the buffalo in a respectful manner. It is said that when this honored, that the animals, within that particular family, are much calmer during the harvest. However, with current USDA regulation, this is a costly way of harvesting animals since it requires the use of a mobile-processing truck to drive out to the pasture so the animals can be gutted and cleaned within 45 minutes of the kill. Yet, despite the fact that the families could be saving approximately $180 per animal by trucking live animals directly to a slaughter facility, and despite the fact that scheduling the truck is very unpredictable, considering it is not able to drive onto their pastures if they are wet or covered in snow, which just this spring caused a 6 week delay in harvesting, despite all this, they have chosen to do it this way.

Another practice that many buffalo ranchers are adopting from the industrial cattle industry is manually weaning calves from their mothers just a few months after they’re born. The advantage that these producers find from doing this is that the calves will start on grain more readily and fatten quicker. However, by doing this you break down the natural clan structure of the buffalo. Bison are herd animals but within each herd there may exist several smaller sub-clans or families. According to legend, the Lakota derived their social structure of the Tiwahe (family) and Tiyospaye (community) from the buffalo. Furthermore, traditional production methods drive producers to harvest their animals at approximately 30 months, the time needed for optimal weight gain. Weaning and always harvesting at the same age destroys the natural social structure of buffalo. According to Ed Iron Cloud from the Knife Chief Buffalo Nation (a member of the LBCC), “it’s like having a bunch of adolescents running around, you NEED the older bulls to protect the herd and you need to elders to keep the social order.” A social principle mirrored in the Lakota culture.

While these are just a few anecdotes, I think they illustrate some of the conflicts that exist between the old paradigm and possibly a new one emerging. One thing that I have really learned from these experiences is that the connecting tissue in this entire system is the consumer. As its name implies, Allied Natural Meats is committed to working with the LBCC to find ways around these conflicts – to “rework” things as Escobar would say. A large part of this has been educating retailers and consumers about why the meat costs more than typical buffalo meat or why things may be delayed a few weeks. This has allowed the LBCC to raise the buffalo in a way that is consistent with their worldview. If in some way this represents a small transference of worldviews that might contribute to the broader social transformation that Escobar has theorized is unclear. What is clear to me is that we can not rely solely on science and the market to solve the problems we face today. Many these problems were already worked-out centuries ago, the answers have just been suppressed, erroneously delegitimized and/or taken for granted. The best way for us to uncover these answers is to work as allies, and rework these lines of conflict.

For more information about the LBCC visit their website at: http://www.lakotabuffalocaretakers.org/

To learn more about Village Earth’s work on the Pine Ridge Reservation visit: http://www.villageearth.org/pages/Projects/Pine_Ridge/index.php

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