Being the Buffalo (Article in the Rocky Mountain Bullhorn) The release of the majestic beasts on Pine Ridge signals a new beginning. October 06, 2005 Members of the Oglala Lakota tribe, a subdivision of the Native American Sioux Nation, believe that the world is continuously destroyed and recreated in a cyclical process, with a destruction supposed to come around sometime during my lifetime. This concerns me. On September 25, Robert Braveheart, son of tribal leader Basil Braveheart of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, spoke of the world preceding this one in which buffalo were actually humans, the dominant species. These humans in the previous world were seduced by evil into the next world, the one we know now, where they became trapped inside a beastly buffalo body and then were replaced by other humans—us. According to this Lakota legend, we are actually a secondary species to the buffalo, which are the true humans and which by a nasty twist of fate ended up looking like the thundering, furry beasts they are now.
Perhaps the idea is a bit hard to swallow, but while listening to Robert Braveheart retell this legend with intensity and pride that day—despite the wind howling across the plain and the freezing rain slapping against our faces—I became absolutely convinced that I had been underestimating this animal my entire life. This dreary Sunday also celebrated the release of ten bison onto the Buffalo Heart Buffalo Ranch, owned by the Braveheart family. The reintroduction initiated restoration of tribal land that had been forcibly leased out to cattle ranchers and subsequently destroyed through overgrazing. Following Braveheart’s speech, Henry Red Cloud, a fifth-generation descendent of Lakota Chief Red Cloud, performed a prayer ceremony in which he blessed and thanked the buffalo and finally swung open the doors of the trailer that held them. Ten buffalo stormed out, charged up a hill and disappeared beyond it with a stampede that seemed to leave the smell of smoke behind. And then stillness, tears and the feeling that I just had a spiritually rejuvenating experience.
Charlotte Braveheart, Basil’s wife, stood behind me crying. “There are spirits in the spirit world who are happy now,” she said, nodding with assertion. Later she told me how the Bravehearts had been laughed at and told that no one makes money raising buffalo anymore. Yet in a place where poverty is a way of life but hospitality is always generously extended, I expect that the new Buffalo Heart Buffalo Ranch is less a business endeavor to turn a profit and more a movement toward cultural restoration. “We’ve done it for the ancestors,” Charlotte explained. Once estimated at 75 million in Sioux territory, the buffalo are coming home, ten at a time. Home, though, is a bit different than it used to be. Despite the promising movement toward land restoration, Pine Ridge landowners still are required to fence in their land or it will be immediately revoked again. Hence the latest scramble in the Braveheart family to secure enough fence posts for Buffalo Heart Buffalo Ranch. Most Pine Ridge residents live in overcrowded trailers that seem to be swallowed up by the expanse of prairie on which they sit, and yet these trailers are certainly preferred when the other option is government-issued housing projects infested with deadly mold, which causes lung infections and has resulted in many infant fatalities. The more pressing health concern, though, is that an estimated 50 percent of the Pine Ridge population suffers from diabetes. This can be attributed to malnutrition as a result of insufficient healthcare and government food programs, as well as to their isolation in this rather remote corner of South Dakota, where electricity and water services falter. Such adversity has resulted in a rupture of community adhesion, and the Lakota people seem to have adopted the idea of “every man for himself,” having lost faith and trust in everyone else. One volunteer teacher at the Red Cloud School on the reservation remarked about the distrustful, separatist attitude that has overtaken the Pine Ridge community. “They’re all in survival mode. But, you know, ‘United we stand, divided we fall.’” Perhaps a bit simplistic, but to a degree, it’s true. Still a bit mesmerized by the image of ten enormous beasts erupting onto the Buffalo Heart Buffalo Ranch—in front of an audience relieved that they can finally begin to pacify their restless ancestors—I began to wonder if there was some validity to this idea that there exists a common denominator between the buffalo and us. Is it possible that I could find myself being led by evil into a new world where I would take the form of a buffalo? It may not be such a terrible twist of fate.
Legends aside, there’s something admirable about buffalo that we can learn from: the self-sufficiency of animals that can dig into the ground and extract the necessary roots to cure their ailments; their sustainable relationship to the land on which they roam, which never becomes overgrazed; their ability to pay for themselves by providing meat and bones for consumption, and fur and skin for protection; and their endurance in the most extreme conditions, surviving with minimal resources. I may not be convinced that I’ll be transformed into a buffalo during my lifetime, but after witnessing how ten buffalo can reignite the pride and self-worth in the Braveheart family, I have gained a certain admiration for these shaggy beasts. At the very least, through massacre, near extinction and displacement, they’ve readily stuck to that old saying, “United we stand.”