The Story that Brought Back the Existence of North American Bison

Written by Puspita Insan Kamil
Editor: Peter McDonough

Humans have lived together with wildlife since long ago, and as creatures that always try to seek and give meaning to everything around them, humans created stories about wild animals. I am reminded of this every time I travel to a strange or new place around the world. We create a story and build a belief about another species. So when I had the chance to attend the Roundtable on The Crown of The Continent in 2015, I chose a session that talked about Iinnii Initiative without a second thought. The session was brought by Paulette Fox, a member and the tribe liaison of the Blood Tribe (Kainai Tribe) of the First Nations who was involved in the movement since the very beginning in 2010. Iinnii Initiative is a movement that brings indigenous people, government, and local authorities together to restore the population of the bison. Iinnii is a word for “bison” in Blackfoot language, and the initiative did several things such as preserve land, make buffalo parks, encourage ecotourism, and also teach young people about bison through festivals and games.

Paulette started her session with a video from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) that helped the Blackfeet society bring back the bison communities, and then she retold the story about the bison itself and its meaning for her tribe. As many websites mention, the buffalo holds a strong meaning for Native Americans, and she said that the bison is much respected in her tribe because it provides everything for tribe communities. It gives food, shelter (a teepee is made from bison skin), tools, jewelry, and other various items from every part of its body. A bison is seen as a sacred spirit who gives help to the Native American people; they have songs and prayers for them. There is also a First Nations folk legend about a girl who married a big bison. A bison with white skin was considered to have sacred value and was once named Big Medicine as it was believed to have a superpower compared to every other bison.

Massive killing in the 19th Century made the bison disappear; Euro-American settlers hunted them down for profit without maintaining the sustainability of bison communities. Significant changes happened to the landscape and ecology; most important was the cultural loss to the First Nations. The Blackfeet Tribe Confederacy started the Iinnii initiative, with the help of the WCS, with the rationale of bringing back bison to graze in a very large area. They followed this by signing the Buffalo Restoration Treaty in 2014, which brought tribes from Canada and the United States together to protect the bison.

Even though bison nowadays are bred for commercial purposes, especially for meat, wild bison have their own land to live on. I went to the National Bison Range at Moiese, Montana as a part of my activity with the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative to see how a wildlife refuge is built as a way to contribute in conservation. Montana has a strong commitment to conservation and, when I visited this place, I saw it was not only a huge area where bison live. There was also a museum at the entrance gate and a shop to buy some stickers or simply to donate (I also bought cute stickers portraying wild animals of Montana – spending some bucks for conservation is simple; I hope you do that too). This place is also home to other species, with a river as a place for animals to gather and drink. People can go around this area with a car and see the wildlife without putting them into small enclosures.

After listening to Paulette’s story about how they struggled to bring back the bison using their stories (and also to preserve the stories of the bison), I remembered my homeland. Even now I am involved with a small group that is doing research on human-wildlife conflict concerning the Komodo dragon. A good friend of mine, who is also the leader of the team, once wrote about the Legend of Ora (Ora is the local term for Komodo), which you can read here. It depicts a story about how Komodo was actually the twin sibling of the son of the island’s tribal chief. This story exists until now as many people still believe in it, and it may help conservation efforts to preserve Komodo – no human beings really want to kill their twin sibling.

There are many stories about wild animals in Indonesia that still exist nowadays among local communities and help the continued existence of the wildlife. However, non-locals or non-members of the tribes are the ones who kill wildlife as they don’t understand how local people respect them. Recently I met a bright young wildlife videographer and filmmaker who portrayed an expedition in search of the rare Javan rhinoceros, which you can watch here. One of local people says in the video that, for them, the rhino is the guardian of the land and therefore they – and everyone - should pay their respects to it. Still I heard news about rhino hunting in the name of using its horn for traditional medicine.

I want to point out that a story can have a strong impact if we only want to know and listen to the people who believe it. There is no point in questioning the scientific truth of it – hence why it is called a legend or folk story. We may have obtained degrees and the elders who tell the story may not, but in fact the story helps preserve wildlife in surrounding communities for a long time, and we are currently moving towards the same aim with many hassles and failures. Stories were able to bring the bison back to North American land, so it is acceptable if we also give a try.

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