Hello Buffalo Supporters,
I’ve missed writing to you all. I hope this lengthy edition of On the Buffalo Trail finds you and your loved ones well. It’s been a busy time for me on the Buffalo Trail. While I have a lot to share about my efforts, unfortunately I must forego those updates to discuss a more pressing issue. I must, once again, discuss the Campaign’s mission regarding wild bison recovery and how that correlates holistically with indigenous lifeways, tribal sovereignty, and treaty rights.
As the Executive Director of Buffalo Field Campaign, I cannot sit idly by while my exemplary reputation and that of the Campaign are raked over the coals by misinformed environmental organizations. Critical comments were made against the Campaign and treaty tribes by a few environmental organizations. Based on those comments it’s evident those non-Indian environmentalists lack the capacity to discuss the quantitative environmental outcomes, due to the application of treaty-reserved rights and subsequent treaty case law. I will clarify a few of these issues from the Campaign’s standpoint. For an in-depth understanding of the ecological trends associated with treaty case law applications, you must educate yourself on the individual treaty tribes themselves. Needless to say, the cumulative benefits of treaty rights protection through applied environmental and natural resource policy is profound. It is by the cultural lifeways that drive the practice of treaty rights, that often compels policy change through the application of treaty case law. I expect nothing less in the realm of wild, Yellowstone bison. Indeed, the dramatically changing conditions regarding Yellowstone bison policy look like a manifestation of this phenomena even now. It is due to the lack of cultural competency by those enviro groups, that would drive them to demonize tribal cultural practitioners. They’re letting misrepresented visuals drive what looks to be an emotionally-driven policy response.
When I was hired a few years ago, many supporters reached out to me celebrating that a Native American was hired as Executive Director for Buffalo Field Campaign. I brought a wealth of knowledge and decades of policy experience to the organization. However, my hiring wasn’t without controversy. A few environmental purists were incensed at my hiring, calling attention to my indigenous ties to Yellowstone bison. I’ve been very clear regarding the Campaign’s mission statement and our ongoing support for treaty rights. It shouldn’t matter that I’m a Nez Perce tribal member. I have never deviated from any BFC policy, but here we are.
The naysayers within the environmental community, have begun to get vicious with their criticism of treaty tribes and the Campaign. They are grossly misinformed about the impacts of treaties as the supreme law of the land. Sit in an Inter-agency Bison Management Plan meeting and you’ll witness as we do, the power of those treaty voices. We’ve documented their strong advocacy time and time again. No other sovereign entities even come close to the policy stance and advocacy regarding wild bison and the Yellowstone Ecosystem. None. Listen to the leadership from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation as we have, and you’ll hear them staunchly advocate for year-round habitat outside of the Yellowstone National Park boundary. If you’ve ever heard the Nez Perce delegation represent, you’ll know their population goals are 1000s of bison higher than any alternative in the new Environmental Impact Statement being considered by the National Park Service. The treaty tribes want wild bison saturating the Yellowstone Ecosystem, based on sound science and legal precedent. They advocate for those policy and management stances, not because they want to hunt those bison, but because they honor their tamulwit (sacred responsibility) to Buffalo. It’s a cultural, spiritual, and religious relationship sacred to many treaty tribes. In fact, those tribes are responsible for recovering, restoring, and reintroducing many endangered species throughout their homelands, all predicated upon treaty rights. This is not new ground for them, even if their particular brand of inciting policy change is new to the Yellowstone bison community.
It is their legal standing as treaty holders and their practical bison relationships, that drives their advocacy for appropriate bison management and restoration. The federal government has a fiduciary responsibility to honor the treaties signed with those individual tribes. I would contend the current National Park Service Environmental Impact Statement planning process, while lacking, is as a result of those treaty tribes and the Campaign’s own legal success against the USFWS. I doubt these changes occurred due to the actions of those ivory tower critics. The Campaign is alongside those treaty tribes inciting positive change. Tribes understand that treaty rights protection is predicated on the practical cultural, ceremonial, and subsistence relationships with bison. Those relationships are necessary to provide a basis for the policy and legal advocacy necessary to drive change. And those tribes are driving positive change regardless of those who stand against them.
That is not to say the Campaign has been standing idly by. We’ve successfully litigated the USFWS twice now, regarding their faulty basis for identifying the distinct populations of Yellowstone bison. Further, I’ve been assisting in the development of important legislation that would fundamentally change the way wild bison are managed. Also, our Habitat Coordinator has been actively pursuing a PhD biologist to conduct a Threat’s Assessment for wild Yellowstone bison. We’re continually building our scientific and policy capacities. The Campaign has also been advocating for a holistic solution that includes the transportation and infrastructure systems that intersect with wild bison. The Campaign has met with federal policymakers, park managers, and technical experts supporting the fundamental shift in bison policy that tribes have also been striving for. We’ve never deviated from our roots and have been in the field monitoring IBMP management actions daily. Even though the critics are being force fed misinformation about the Campaign, we will not bow to this false narrative.
Buffalo Field Campaign accepts that a holistic solution for Yellowstone Bison is not a zero-sum game. A viable solution must incorporate the science and policy necessary to protect wild bison, as well as that of treaty tribes. Any native legal practitioner will tell you, the lives of bison and tribes are intimately intertwined. I’m not just discussing tribes that support removing bison for on-reservation restoration, but treaty tribes as well. Too often these days we’re forced to consider every issue through a divisive, polarized lens. Common ground is there for those who would foster it and embrace it. BFC refuses to villainize treaty tribes and their reunification with sacred buffalo lifeways, that were severed against their will. Tribes are honoring their sacred ceremonies, subsistence lifeways, treaty-reserved rights, and needs of their membership today. The Campaign will not make enemies of those who are not responsible for the destruction of wild bison in the first place. We know that Montana and federal agencies have orchestrated all the heavy-handed tactics to artificially control the wild populations in the ecosystem through time. Further, that those same agencies are responsible for the true slaughter of Yellowstone bison. We have the eye witness accounting to prove it, that’s what we do. The proxy attack on the Campaign is a disingenuous tactic against tribal sovereignty. Those environmental experts know little or nothing about treaty case law and its positive impact on wildlife conservation, restoration and recovery.
Whether it’s the exercise of treaty-reserved rights or the on-reservation restoration of bison, the Campaign supports tribal sovereignty. Never have we negotiated any of our policies at the expense of wild bison. We have written about bison ecology at great length, our knowledge and stance are well-known. Like so many others I have examined the population dynamics of Yellowstone bison. Yellowstone bison recovery can happen alongside tribal ceremony, subsistence, and on-reservation restoration. Collectively, those actions can contribute to the wellbeing of well over 100,000 tribal people with historic ties to the Yellowstone bison. Tribal people are not the villains in Yellowstone Bison management. Nor does the subjugation of treaty holders end the slaughter of wild bison. State and Federal agencies have forced every condition that exists on the ground. Tribes will continue to enact their protected lifeways, while advocating for restoration in the face of these discriminatory conditions.
I don’t expect non-Indian laypersons to understand the correlation of treaty case law, tribal sovereignty, cultural lifeways, and religious/ceremonial relationships, but I do. It is unfortunate we have to waste space by addressing conflicts within the environmental community. Divide and conquer has ever been a tactic to cause turmoil from within any worthwhile movement. While I do feel a certain amount of bigotry as a result of the constant attacks, I will continue to represent the Campaign to the best of my ability. I will remain an advocate for Buffalo and stay true to our vision and mission. BFC is about Buffalo. I truly hope this is the final time I will have to substantiate my credentials and Native American heritage. I represent tens of thousands of wonderful supporters, and I take this responsibility with the utmost importance. No one is going anywhere. We’re all in this conundrum together as neighbors. Let’s be good to each other and include the voices of everyone. I appreciate all of you standing beside the Campaign and wild, Yellowstone Buffalo.
For the Buffalo,
James L. Holt Sr., ED
“It is all to easy to fall into the government trap to blame Native Americans for the ongoing, insane slaughter of the buffalo. Anglo-activists should know better, however, than to fall for these divide-and-conquer strategies. Unfortunately, without doing the hard work of un-colonizing our minds, and conditioned by a lifetime of privilege, we white environmentalists can unwittingly fall into that agency trap. My own experience over the last quarter century, from co-founding BFC with Rosalie Little Thunder to proudly working with our Executive Director James Holt, has taught me that working with Native Americans on behalf of buffalo - a species that they co-evolved with over tens of thousands of years - requires great humility and an ever-increasing cultural sensitivity. When white people attempt to tell Native Americans what is best for the buffalo, or try to school tribal members in the exercise of their treaty rights under the constrained conditions that still prevail, this only serves to prop up the systemic racism that is deeply rooted in our culture. It is for these reasons that BFC is a staunch proponent of treaty rights and Indigenous sovereignty, and we will continue to do everything in our power to restore a natural relationship between Native Americans and wild buffalo, which benefits everyone in the long run.”
~ Mike Mease Co-founder BFC
“For over a decade now James Holt has been and continues to be a strong leader and vital part of Buffalo Field Campaign. First as a Board Member, then as Vice President of the Board, and now in his role as Executive Director, James has never veered in his words or deeds from our mission.
As President of the Board of Directors and with 20 years at Buffalo Field Campaign, I am honored to work with James, to collaborate with him on all aspects of our work, and to call him a friend. I am steadfast in our decades long support of tribal sovereignty. I am clear that we must continue to hold the state and federal agencies of the Interagency Bison Management Plan responsible for the travesty that we see in both the quarantine operation and hunt conditions. This has not changed.
BFC is about Buffalo. The Buffalo teach us to take care of one another, to take care of the herd.”
Let that be our focus and our intent,
~ Justine Sanchez President, Buffalo Field Campaign Board of Directors