wild buffalo have been slaughtered in America in the past
ten years than at any time in the last century. Capitalizing
on the Indian's complete dependence upon the buffalo, 19th
century government leaders launched a campaign to wipe them
out, and in so doing, force the Indians into a sedentary lifestyle
more in line with the prevailing European notions of private
property and "civilization." Secretary of Interior
Columbus Delano made the following remarks in 1873, a year
after Yellowstone National Park was established:
The civilization of the Indian is impossible while the
buffalo remains upon the plains. I would not seriously regret
the total disappearance of the buffalo from our western prairies,
in its effect upon the Indians, regarding it as a means of
hastening their sense of dependence upon the products of the
soil and their own labors.
--Annual Report of the Department of the Interior
Not only did the whites view the survival of buffalo as a
means of perpetuating Native American life ways, they saw
the buffalo as being incompatible with their dream of a Great
Plains cattle culture. It was a simple matter of competition;
as long as buffalo remained wild, they would out-compete the
cattle for forage and stand as a living reminder to the uncivilized
nature of the pre-conquest West. These undercurrents come
to the surface in the following speech against a bill which
would have made it illegal for whites to kill buffalo.
argument, made by U.S. Representative Conger, was delivered
There is no law that Congress can pass that will prevent the
buffalo from disappearing before the march of civilization.
There is no law which human hands can write, there is no law
which a Congress of men can enact, that will stay the disappearance
of these wild animals before civilization. They eat the grass.
They trample upon the plains upon which our settlers desire
to herd their cattle and their sheep. They range over the
very pastures where the settlers keep their herds of cattle.
They destroy the pasture. They are as uncivilized as the Indian."
1874, U.S. Representative Conger.
These attitudes remain strong even today. The influence of
the cattle baron is heard loud and clear while the Native
American voice falls on deaf ears. To the western livestock
industry, cattle represent an economic interest and way of
life, albeit barely a hundred years old. To Native Americans
the buffalo represent the essence of their social, cultural,
and spiritual identity and a relationship tens of thousands
of years old. That the tribes haven't been allowed at the
table where the ranchers, land managers, and politicians decide
the fate of the buffalo reflects both the lack of wisdom and
the utter disrespect of those in charge. No one has a closer
relationship to the buffalo than the Native American. Why
are the tribes being left out? Winona LaDuke, in an article
printed last year in Indian Country Today, raises the same
Absent are the people who actually know the buffalo: the Nez
Perce, Blackfeet and Crow, and others whose treaties encompass
part of Yellowstone National Park, or the Winnebago, Ho Chunk,
Lakota, Anishinabe, Kiowa, Gros Ventre, Cheyenne, Shoshone
Bannock and others, whose spiritual practices, cultural practices,
languages and lives are entirely intertwined with buffalo.
To us, the buffalo is the Western Doorkeeper, the Elder Brother,
the Great One.
Not only is the tribal voice being ignored-- but as the actions
of policy makers and Montana Law Enforcement Officers attest--
the religion and culture of those who consider the buffalo
sacred are being willfully violated. The actions of Montana's
Department of Livestock are in the same vein as the actions
of their predecessors: the buffalo hunters and Army officers
who perpetrated the slaughter in the 1870s. According to Lakota
leader Joseph Chasing Horse, "When the U.S. government
slaughtered the buffalo as a way to subjugate Indian people,
they put into motion an imbalance in the ecosystem that continues
On March 7, 1997, during a winter when 1,084 buffalo were
killed, American Indian tribal leaders from around the country
gathered near Gardiner, Montana, to hold a day of prayer for
the buffalo. The ceremony was disrupted by the echo of gunshots.
Lakota elder Rosalie Little Thunder left the prayer circle
to investigate the shots. Less than two miles away, Department
of Livestock agents had killed fourteen buffalo. Walking across
a field to pray over the bodies, she was arrested and charged
with criminal trespass. To Little Thunder and other tribal
members present there was no question of coincidence: "They
shot the buffalo because we were at that place on that day
at that time," she said.