by Trudy Ecoffey, Tanka Fund Executive Director
“The Buffalo was part of us, his flesh and blood being absorbed by us until it became our own flesh and blood. Our clothing, our tipis, everything we needed for life came from the buffalo’s body. It was hard to say where the animals ended and the human began.”
— John Lame Deer
I was recently asked by a donor what Tanka Fund’s goals for this year were; what benchmarks have we decided on; and have we moved forward on them? Really great questions! I told the donor I wanted to address these questions in some regard in this month’s blog. So when I found this quote from Lame Deer, I had to stop and ponder what Lame Deer was saying and how it fit in with Tanka Fund and what our Mission of the Buffalo Economy really is. The buffalo meant more than just food, shelter and clothing; they were the life blood of many of the Plains Tribes for survival.
So how can Tanka Fund even begin to address what Lame Deer was saying, this year or any year for that matter? What was lost to the Native Tribes that relied on the commissary of the buffalo? What was lost during the great slaughter of the buffalo in terms of economics? As I talked with one of the founding board members of Tanka Fund, we discussed if we could put a price tag on what it meant to lose your primary source of economics. Or can you put a price tag on what was lost in terms of the ecological, spiritual and emotional wellbeing of Native people! How could you even begin to try to put a price tag on the main source of sustainability? And then, how can organizations like Tanka Fund begin to address the daunting task of replacing something so vital to Native people?
What we did agree on, is that Tanka Fund is in the process of working on the strategic plan and strategizing in more detail on how to actually help Native producers bring bison back in numbers that can be a sustainable business to a Native family. One goal of Tanka Fund for 2020 is to provide technical guidance on how to access land for bison reintroduction. Though purchasing of land may seem like a realistic goal, land status on most tribal lands is complicated and not easily acquired. Leasing of tribal lands on reservations is usually in the hands of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and somewhat guided or managed in accordance with tribal laws. Each reservation has different rules, ordinances and laws that dictate ownership, leasing and accessing land. One of the goals for this year is to find out what producers need on a land basis to help them become sustainable.
The other task is to assess the infrastructure in terms of fencing and equipment, and to help obtain animals for reintroduction. Tanka Fund is asking producers what their needs are, both from a technical and an infrastructure standpoint. This information will be the lead on how Tanka Fund will strategies the use of funds and what funding to seek.
The other goal for this year is to look for more producers that are wanting to engage with Tanka Fund and collaborate on marketing avenues, both from a local level and national level. We hope to utilize more buffalo meat raised by Natives for Native American Natural Foods — Tanka Bar products, but also to use more meat locally and provide an avenue for producers to become organic, and raise all grass-fed bison. We are currently working with Nieman Farms, which is a national avenue for people to buy grass-fed, organic raised animals. Do not be surprised that much of the buffalo meat you buy in grocery stores is probably not totally grass-fed. Most buffalo are put in feedlots to be “finished” and then processed. Though TF would not dictate to a Native producer how they should raise their animals, we found most Native producers are looking to completely grass finish their animals and have them be as naturally raised as possible. Most agree it is healthier for the animals, ecosystem and the people to keep them on the grass until harvesting.
Tanka Funds benchmarks this year have been skewed due to the COVID pandemic, but we feel confident that we will be able to regrant to producers in the next few months much needed funds for infrastructure, for such things as fencing, corrals and equipment. We are also in the process of putting together technical assistance on land acquisition and with that, do baseline data on soil and grassland health that is in bison production or soon will be. We also are planning to do site visits and assess infrastructure needs in more depth, so that we can really work towards sustainable production, both economically and ecologically.
Is that enough for one year, when we look at the daunting task of trying to reverse some history? Probably not, but we are setting high goals for the next 5–10 years that we hope to see significant change to the landscape in Indian Country. With partners like our sister organization, Native American Natural Foods (Tanka Bar), and forming partnerships with such entities as World Wildlife Fund, USDA, Cedar Tree Foundation, Native American Agriculture Fund, InterTribal Ag Council and InterTribal Buffalo Council, we hope to improve our chances of making a bigger impact in bringing back the buffalo economy.