Being a Good Relative — Guest Post by Monica Terkildsen
Mitakuyapi, what does it actually mean to be a good relative to bison/buffalo?
In my journey of 57 years now I believe I am nearing the top of the hill in this journey, and looking forward to the coming down on the other side, which I believe to be the side where wisdom reigns. I grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation, north-eastern side, first in the district of LaCreek and then from first grade to now I have resided in the Eagle Nest District, on Quiver Hill, the land of my ancestors.
It is this land, translated as Mako Sica or Badlands, that holds the dreams of bison/buffalo restoration. This land holds the memories of bison that go back generations and the last attempt in this area in the 1970s by a Medicine Man named Silo Black Crow. Silo had the audacity to dream of bringing bison home to the Badlands, to our district.
I call it audacity for through all my formal grade, middle and high school years, bison ranching/restoration wasn’t even a concept, especially in our tribal schools. Livestock or agriculture practices were what we were taught. It is as in the movies: the Natives were always the bad guys, and we questioned ourselves and sided with the cowboy! Not knowing the real story. Not knowing about the taking of lands, massacres, residential schools and reservations. Not understanding the poverty, the land allotments, the management by Bureau of Indian Affairs, the continued land loss and finally today’s disconnect to the land with 64% of our land supporting non-native cattle production. I always say we raise millions of pounds of meat each year and not an ounce comes back to feed us. Except for our tribal bison herd. When we look at these numbers, tens of thousands of cattle to our 700 head of bison. And these are the expected ones to feed the community. This picture is upside down or twisted.
Today, with a clearer understanding of colonialism and many, too many racist and unequitable experiences, I can look back and reflect that with so many injustices including incomplete, inaccurate historical education that our stories lay buried under lies of the twisted and manipulated American history. Our continued land loss, after receiving 80 or 160 acres for an allotment, creation of range units, agriculture leases, loss of good food, Homestead Act, 1910 Act or forced fee patents, and no access to credit, is the true story. Where we were oppressed, and the policies put in place were meant to fractionate us until we ourselves became the oppressor.
The tribes and communities, I believe, are the ones that can help turn this picture around. To be a good relative is to ensure the sustainability of the herds. Sustainability means that there will be healthy bison herds far into the future. To have healthy, biodiverse herds we must dare to have the audacity to maintain herds of 1000+. Therefore, I say communities and tribes can complete this story. We have thousands of acres of tribal land, land owned by us as a tribe. We can create these herds on Pine Ridge by utilizing tribal lands.
Our tribe or community can play a significant role for future generations of bison and of the people. The bison restore rather than extract, and can do this if the relationship is maintained as one of health and biodiversity. We can create jobs that will ensure our relatives are maintained and other tribal herds benefit. We can trade with other tribes to maintain the very important biodiversity, we can maintain family relations rather than create dysfunction by manipulation of the herd. We can again have good meat in our homes. We just have to have the audacity to change the paradigm that has been given us. We need to decolonize our thinking and think of restoring health and biodiversity, and truly be a good relative.
We need to create long-lasting partnerships. We need to educate our own with the ultimate outcome of “by us, for us!” And we need to rethink the federal policies and talk amongst ourselves and share our dreams of the future and then work so, so hard to have a healthy, well-balanced ecosystem relationship with a keystone species (remember the stories told to us of this relationship) and ourselves.
We can do this, and when I close my eyes as I wander down the other side of the hill of wisdom, I see buffalo families grazing quietly on tribal land. I see wealth in the creation of knowledge, we are maintaining our ecosystem relationships. I see medicines growing and providing for what they were created for. I see native grasses, strong and healthy. I see the children with good, adequate food and excelling in all that they dare to do. I see both the bison and us healthy.
Monica is a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation, an aspiring Unci (grandmother) and resides on Quiver Hill, the north east corner of the Pine Ridge Reservation, where she happily toils in the soil, harvesting medicines and enjoys the challenges of walking in two worlds. She joined the WWF-Northern Great Plains program in 2017 to lead outreach efforts on Pine Ridge regarding the South Unit (Strong Hold), land owned by the tribe and co-managed by the National Park Service. Monica is a member of the Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance that is working to ensure the sustainability of tribal wildlife conservation and ensure there are grasslands for generations by creating sustainable financing, engaging local communities and leadership, and connecting conservation with life ways. Monica is also an advocate of the Buffalo Treaty and has brought the Oglala Sioux Tribe to be a signatory and continues as a working group member tackling issues impacting tribes and the buffalo relative. Monica works with her community bringing forth education on “Food as a medicine” to the community through education in planting, harvesting and preserving foods. She participates in public service as the President of the Crazy Horse School Board and is a founding member of a Women’s Society – Ethics and traditional thoughts and philosophy.