by Trudy Ecoffey, Tanka Fund Executive Director
U.S. Army General Phillip Sheridan described how killing the Indians’ commissary to subdue them sealed the fate of both the bison and the Native people who relied on them.
General Philip Sheridan stated:
“(Buffalo hunters) have done more in the last two years, and will do more in the next year, more to settle the vexed Indian question than the entire regular army has done in the last thirty years. They are destroying the Indians’ commissary; and it is a well known fact then an army losing its base of supplies is placed at a great disadvantage. Send them powder and lead if you will; but for the sake of lasting peace, let them kill, skin and sell until the buffaloes are exterminated.” (cited in Danz, 1997, p. 112).
It is the political season here and on many of the reservations across Native country. Many tribal elections correspond with the state and federal elections. Campaign slogans and promises are being made. Some of the promises will be kept and some will not. The statement above was the political thought of the day in the mid-1870s, and it was kept. Millions of buffalo were killed for sport, the hide, and/or tongue.
There are many statements being made today as we go forward, that may have the same bad effect on certain people and communities. I will keep my political views to myself; however, I do want to encourage people to be kind; to be considerate of others’ views and opinions; to think clearly on what the consequences are going forward. What might be good for some, is not always good for others. This was apparent in what was allowed to happen to the buffalo commissary during the 1870s: It almost obliterated a species of animal and, in turn, destroyed a people’s livelihood.
During those times of the Indian Wars, getting rid of the Native economy was a real issue. The United States government was trying to “subdue” the Native people. As Native people continue to struggle with commissary and economics still today, we wonder if any promises have ever been kept for Native people — if any political statement would ever bring back the millions of buffalo killed, or help in establishing more opportunities for jobs and other types of revenue to meet the needs of tribes. We may think it’s cruel and shameful now, but then it was what the people of the United States wanted, so that westward expansion could happen. It was pushing and shoving Native people onto little remnants of what used to be their homelands, or even worse, moving them hundreds and even thousands of miles away to new lands that were not their homelands.
If you think back on that, think about what the Native people lost in terms of their economy. Think about what each buffalo represented in terms of its worth, not just from a financial existence, but what is was worth in terms of the ecosystem. What each buffalo was worth culturally, spiritually and even mentally. Can you put a price tag on any of this? It wasn’t just buffalo that were getting killed at that time, either. Other tribes were also losing their economy. Some tribes were losing fishing rights in the northwest or water rights in the southwest. All took the economy away from Native people trying to survive.
Tanka Fund does not focus only on what was lost. However, sometimes we need to consider that loss so we can move forward… we need to be reminded why that situation is what it is, and then move forward.
I just came through the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming a few weeks ago. It is the land now left for the Shoshoni and Northern Arapaho people. It is mainly the homeland of the Arapaho, but the Shoshoni were forced to live there too and removed from their ancestral lands. Both tribes continue to struggle to find common ground to exist and to develop an economy for their people.
We stayed at the Northern Arapaho Casino and Hotel in Riverton, WY, which is filled with artwork and a culture of a time past, including statues of buffalo out front and in the hotel lobby. The Arapaho have recently reintroduced buffalo to their homelands. I cannot wait to visit with some tribal folks about that and how Tanka Fund can help as they move forward on their endeavors to return buffalo and to re-establish a relationship.
I will be traveling that way again in October to present on Tanka Fund. One of Tanka Fund’s objectives is to provide information to tribal people on good land management practices and good herd management. Tanka Fund just received two grants from USDA that will allow us to expand our mission to provide technical assistance to more Native people.
Tanka Fund is gearing up for a time of giving as well. We are putting together short videos with stories about people working with buffalo and why the return of these animals is so important. We also want those videos and information to focus on Native foods from the Great Plains. We hope that people will consider giving a donation so that Tanka Fund can build on giving back to Native producers that are returning buffalo back to Native lands. Next month’s buffalo blog will have more information on what we will be presenting, including Native producers’ testimony, some Native cooking, and much more.
Stay tuned and stay positive during this election season. Though the past seemed bleak, the future can hold much promise. Thanks for supporting the return…