Buffalo are the backbone of Lakota food sovereignty
Food as Medicine ⬿

Buffalo are the backbone of Lakota food sovereignty

Youngsters slice boneless strips of meat to hang for dried jerky.
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December 26, 2018

OGLALA SIOUX NATION, U.S.A. – Blood staining their hands, dozens of men, women and children are wielding knives in the schoolyard. Bones and flesh and entrails are heaped in mounds all around. This scene in the heartlands of the United States is, however, anything but the kind of violent outbreak besieging schools across the country.

Instead, it is a flagship volunteer project to return to native foodways for the health of everyone here on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

The daylong butchery is a rare ritual being conducted by people from many groups participating in the Lakota Food Sovereignty Coalition. They come together to work, pray, sing and dance in honor of the buffalo they are sacrificing for food and cultural renewal.

The sun is shining, the breeze is slight, and the prairie midday sky burns blue. The tiny tots are throwing a ball, riding a tricycle and climbing on playground equipment, unscathed by the carnage at their Lakota Immersion Childcare center, the primary recipient of the meat.

On her knees beside the severed head of a 3-year-old bull buffalo, Lisa Iron Cloud chisels the wooly black hide off a hock above a cloven hoof. Once this is aged by the weather, the skinned joint will form a generations-old toy, the bone horse.

On her knees beside the severed head of a 3-year-old bull buffalo, Lisa Iron Cloud chisels the wooly black hide off a hock above a cloven hoof. Photo: Talli Nauman

Native children through the ages have played with these toys like others have played with marbles, says veteran tribal wildlife biologist Richard Sherman, co-author of the award-winning book Indigenous Peoples and the Collaborative Stewardship of Nature.

Sherman culled the 1,200-pound buffalo from the Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe’s herd of hundreds with an antique rifle, following ceremonial knowledge handed down to him by elders. The donation of the meat clearly shows the tribal government’s commitment to the Lakota Food Sovereignty Coalition.

Iron Cloud credits Sherman for training community members in the revival of techniques developed over thousands of years before European intrusion interrupted the equilibrium of their ancestors’ buffalo-centric culture.

The effort to carry on the practices of community participation in a bison slaughter is a worthy cause, she agrees.

Carving up the pieces “encourages people to speak, share and understand different ways to do things. It has an overall effect on everything,” she notes. “It’s a lot of work, but we laugh and talk. It’s a whole fun and fulfilling thing to do.”

Loni Tobacco, the cook at the childcare center, says she has been carrying on the tradition of the community buffalo butchering for years. “It helps me to know there are still ladies who want to do it,” she says. Butchering was historically women’s work, Sherman notes.

Tobacco turns her attention to some young women cleaning a length of intestine bigger than a jumbo jump rope. “It surprises me how there are still a lot of youth interested when we show them how we used to get the meat back in the day.”

Young women clean intestines. “Everything on that buffalo is supposed to be used,” honor dance leader Emmanuel Black Bear says. Photo: Talli Nauman

Nearby, three youngsters are stationed at one of several white plastic foldout tables, slicing boneless strips of meat to hang for dried jerky. By the end of the day, childcare center personnel will have hung the fillets from the rafters of the classroom, out of reach until they’re ready to eat.

“I’m glad to see you’re not wasting anything. Everything on that buffalo is supposed to be used,” Emmanuel Black Bear says, as he prepares to lead teenagers in a buffalo dance and song “to give thanks to the buffalo spirit for giving us life.

“Our next generations are in trouble if we don’t stand up and do what you are doing,” he insists.

Childcare Manager Blue Little says, “Being able to have this kind of event is a huge success for us. One of the things we have had trouble with is access to quality food. But with this buffalo kill, we will be able to put food in the freezer. The kids love the meat, and it will take its place on the menu.”

Lakota Immersion Childcare Manager Blue Little (right) and staff who hung meat to dry in the facility’s kitchen focus intensely on kids’ nutrition, she says. Photo: Talli Nauman

Little says the staff focuses intensely on nutrition. Employees planted a garden with squash and carrots that got used here. They will make the 180-mile round trip to shop in the nearest urban setting of Rapid City, just to ensure the daycare serves organic food, she says. “We see a difference with the kids during the day,” based on their diet, she observes.

“They know what fresh food is. That’s more and more of a necessity. They need that good source of nutrition to help their brains.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has verified that buffalo meat’s superior nutritional quality is reason enough to justify the healthy long lives enjoyed in the days of yore by the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota Sioux, as well as other tribes here in North America’s Great Plains region.

The department calls bison “clearly the better choice” of meat, with significantly less fat, calories, and cholesterol, as well as higher amounts of protein, iron and vitamin B-12 than beef, pork, chicken or salmon.

The USDA calls bison “clearly the better choice” of meat, with significantly less fat, calories, and cholesterol, as well as higher amounts of protein, iron and vitamin B-12 than beef, pork, chicken or salmon. Photo: Talli Nauman

That fact now is well recognized by both Indians and non-Indians in these climes. “When it comes to nutritional health, it affects your gut,” Iron Cloud states. “That affects your whole body.”

Thunder Valley Community Development Corp. operates the school and is a coalition leader. Its Food Sovereignty Initiative Director Nick Hernandez appreciates both the individual physical and public health aspects of the buffalo sacrifice. “For us that scene is so special because that’s our traditional food source,” he says.

“We’re becoming disconnected as a people. We’re so plagued by health disparities related to the food we eat. When we use our historical understanding of foods to reconnect ourselves back, that contributes to community health in so many ways,” he adds.

Before the 19th Century, herds of 4 million American bison commonly roamed the Great Plains. Outnumbering the humans by 1,000-to-one, they provided everything native people needed to thrive – food, medicine, clothing, shelter, tools, utensils, decoration and playthings.

On the Northern Plains, the people of the Great Sioux Nation came to call themselves the Pte Oyate, or Buffalo Nation. Creation stories have it that the buffalo used its nose to form the human from a humble clump of mud.

“The animal nation is also our relative, very closely, and the animal nation – we are part of them and they are part of us,” says Bryant High Horse, instructor at Oglala Lakota College, a coalition member. “The animals are our mentors and teachers of the universe.”

Buffalo weigh up to 2,000 pounds apiece in adulthood. For them, 30 miles per hour is a leisurely speed. The brisk passing of a herd breaks up the hardpack of matted prairie grasslands. Rolling in dirt, they leave depressions, or buffalo wallows. These ponds collect rainwater on the otherwise arid savanna, promoting plant growth and animal species diversity, while hedging against drought.

Grouse are among numerous critters camouflaged in the sage and tall grass of the savanna, where buffalo herds break up the hard-packed soil and leave depressions that collect rainwater, promoting plant growth and animal species diversity, while hedging against drought. Photo: Talli Nauman

For millennia, the tribes migrated to follow the great herds, scarcely wanting for lack of the wheels and iron so central to societies across the seas.

While beholden to the species Bison bison, the people added wide variety to their buffalo staples by hunting other wild game, fishing, and gathering roots, as well as stalks, shoots, leaves, flowers, berries, and mushrooms.

“It was an amazing time, and nobody was ever sick,” High Horse marvels. Scouts from a community would scour the grasslands for the prized animals, and a whole village of tipis made from their hides served as a backdrop for dances to pray for the hunt.

After locating a herd, the men who were hunters would fast and prepare, don the furs of wolves to mimic predators, creep toward the target, and suddenly rise up yelling, swinging the pelts and causing a stampede over a cliff. Numerous buffalo would perish in a headlong plunge off the edge. Then, led by women, the whole community would butcher.

Later, after horses came into use, riders would charge into a herd and sacrifice an animal at close range, using bows and arrows. Prayers of thanks, singing, and feasting would follow, leading to the preparation of dried meat and tanning of hides.

When Europeans arrived to colonize Lakota territory, however, they destroyed the buffalo culture. Their shock trooper was the so-called gentleman hunter, who would kill the buffalo from a train window using a longarm, or set a grassfire near a watering hole, then take aim from a tripod when the beasts tried to slake their thirst.

The U.S. military officers, in charge of settlers’ safety during the era of Westward Expansion, promoted this activity as a means to clear the proverbial swamp, starving the Pte Oyate and forcing its bands to seek handouts, which they could only access by disarming at forts with concentration camps euphemistically termed reservations.

The mercenaries usually took only the hide or tongue, leaving the rest to rot. Great mountains of skulls and fields strewn with bones commemorate the slaughter in photos of the day.

This photo, taken in 1892, shows a virtual mountain of Buffalo skulls

A celebrated quote of history books remains to echo the words of Lt. Col. Richard Irving Dodge, who recommended: “Kill every buffalo you can! Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.”

The once self-sufficient original peoples of the plains now had to hang around the forts, divested of their means to hunt and provide for themselves.

By the early 1880s, all but a couple hundred bison, out of an estimated 30 million, had been exterminated. At the forts, a weekly ration depended on a family’s ability to provide forced labor; the allotment could be spoiled; or it might not even arrive on the supply train.

Those descendants who eventually adapted to farming and ranching plots along the Missouri River soon lost their land, belongings and communities, too, in the 20th Century federal flooding of the waterway for hydroelectric dams. Many had to move far away to cities under a U.S. 20th Century policy called relocation.

The ensuing commodity food program on Indian reservations consisted of boxes laden with processed and canned carbohydrates, fats, salts, sugars and preservatives — the opposite of the historically high-protein and medicinal plant diet, resulting in rampant obesity, diabetes, and the so-called “commod bod.”

“When packaged goods were given to us, it should have made it easier for us,” High Horse muses. Instead, he says, “Our warriorhood was lost when we accepted the food.”

On the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, as well as others, estimates today are that about 50 percent of people over age 40 are diabetic. Life expectancy for American Indians is about five years less than for the general population, and this difference is commonly cited as being much larger for the Pine Ridge reservation.

Other important diet-related health concerns among American Indians include twice the overall population’s rate of heart disease, high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, as well as epidemic obesity, as noted in Thunder Valley’s 2014 Food System Assessment, a baseline analysis of the local food and health needs.

Here, as elsewhere, Native Americans experience serious psychological distress 1.5 times more than the general population, according to the government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Compared to the rest of the state of South Dakota, in which the reservation is located, it is the worst-ranked for premature death, physical and mental health loss-time, obesity, smoking and drinking, a county-by-county study of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reveals.

“The statistics we have nowadays shouldn’t have never happened,” Black Bear laments. “If we go back to our old ways, we won’t have that,” he says, advocating, “It’s our job” to ensure that children receive a wholistic education that spans the gamut from spirituality to social responsibility to nutrition.

Youngsters slice boneless strips of meat to hang for dried jerky. Photo: Talli Nauman

The commodity food program remains a source of 75 basic items, such as white rice, dried beans, and dried milk, for approximately 13 percent of all Pine Ridge reservation residents, according to the assessment.

Today’s generation has a food subsidy option, in the form of Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards, which work like debit cards for the purchases of personal selection.

However, the traditional diet has been dumbed-down through the years of narrow choice, to the extent that many shoppers really don’t know what to look for in the way of nutrition for healthy minds and bodies.

“Food is supposed to be medicine to our body, but people want it fast now,” says Amanda Ruiz, a Miniconjou Lakota Master’s degree candidate at Oglala Lakota College and the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, known to fellow students as “the voice of Lakota food sovereignty.”

Unlike the Lakota Immersion Childcare, other schools typically pressure kids to eat and run on a half-hour lunch break, she notes. “In school, we’re not teaching them about food, that’s why need curriculum,” she said.

Thunder Valley has piloted a food sovereignty curriculum in three schools. As part of her degree work, Ruiz is advancing her own curriculum, bound and determined to insert it into the mainstream of indigenous education.

She presented the concept to the American Indian Higher Education Consortium in Washington, D.C., advocating to put it in every single school associated with the Tribal College and University system.

However, even savvy shoppers get a pretty sorry shake when they go to the store here. The Oglala Sioux Nation qualifies as a food desert, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Technically that means a place where the residents have both low income and “low access to a grocery store or healthy, affordable food retail outlet.”

The second-largest federally-recognized American Indian jurisdiction and population, after the Navajo Nation in the U.S. Southwest, Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is one of the most impoverished census tracts in the United States.

About half of the more than 30,000 community members here subsist below the poverty line. Unemployment rates hover around 70 percent, and the median household income on the reservation is only about $29,000 compared to $52,250 in the United States as a whole.

The reservation encompasses 11,000 square miles. It has two small grocery stores, more than 50 miles apart.

Given that these stores have no competition and the rest of the outlets consist of five convenience stores, “the gas station is still where people get most of their food, and they’re paying three times more than what we have in Rapid City,” Ruiz complains. “It’s faster and easier. It breaks my heart.”

Junk food reins. Little produce is offered and, when it is, it isn’t too fresh. Whole grain and organic alternatives are generally unavailable from retailers on the reservation.

A lot of folks don’t have good, working vehicles or the gas money to travel to the city. According to USDA figures, 17 percent of households here still have no wheels, and the assessment concludes that number is probably low. Muddy and icy country roads are a major problem. Public transportation is extremely scarce.

The challenges when coupled with climate-change impacts create the very definition of food insecurity, Ruiz warns. So, as the Lakota Food Sovereignty Coalition confronts the historical burden of hunger, its adherents also brace for increasing climate disruption, she says.

“We address it: If something was to happen, what are you going to do?” she says. “How many bags of Cheetos are going to be left on the shelf?”

She and her academic colleague Rick Gerlach are spearheading a greenhouse project at Oglala Lakota College that will come to expand the number of opportunities for people to take health and nutrition into their own hands.

“We’re looking at five years down the road from now and what we’re going to need to do when drought gets worse,” Gerlach says.

However, a plethora of buffalo butchering events and greenhouses would not be enough to achieve food sovereignty.

For that, Hernandez says, taking back local control of food is the first step in creating an independent economic unit, which in turn can provide jobs, income, self-respect, and improved community health.

“You can say we have no economy,” he posits. “The focus for food sovereignty is to create a model food system as a basis for an economy that we can then share with others.”

Advocates aim to do no less, and they are as optimistic as they are ambitious. “I really feel good about this,” says High Horse. “It’s like sending a prayer or song out. It’s going to be heard around the world.”


The late H. Jane Nauman compiled notes and recipes given to her by tribal members. One of her sources was the late Charley Randall, who told her how he recalled his grandmother’s way.

After the meal, the hoof and the bones are given to the children to make bone horses and wagons. The two bones next to the hoof are used as horns. A harness is made out of string, and a covered wagon out of the hoof.

This article is a part of Food as Medicine, an exclusive series made possible by a grant from the Elna Vesara Ostern Fund.

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