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Feel the Thunder Within You: Restoration of the Buffalo Nation

Feel the Thunder Within You: Restoration of the Buffalo Nation

Guest Post by Joseph Gazing Wolf
Doctoral Research Fellow, Global Locust Initiative, Global Institute of Sustainability and Innovation
PhD Student, School of Life Sciences, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

I remember the first time I ever met Tatanka (Buffalo). Grandfather was taking me to a ceremony at Ȟe Sápa (Black Hills) and we stopped at Mako Siča (Badlands) to honor our buffalo relatives. I had only seen them in pictures so far, a testament to the colonial history that had eradicated them from our homelands and from our lives. Growing up in a ranching family, I had been exposed to cattle, sheep, goats, and horses, but nothing could have prepared me for the coming thunder. I was so excited to see buffalo that I hung half my body out the window of the truck fervently searching with my eyes across the landscape. Suddenly the truck came to a stop and Grandfather called for me to look at a hill over to our left. At first I saw a few buffalo running together towards us, then more followed over the horizon, and then more. As they came closer, Grandfather turned the engine off and smiled, but the closer they got the more scared I got. The ground began to shake as the stampeding herd which now numbered in the hundreds approached the truck. I grabbed onto Grandfather’s arm as the herd came down from the hill and down the highway directly towards the truck. Seeing that I was scared, Grandfather grabbed my hand and put it over my heart, he said, “Close your eyes and feel the thunder within you.” This is something he had taught me to do with the sacred drum, something he said unites the physical, mental, and spiritual within us. Grandfather was a romantic, a poet.

Soon, while thundering hooves shook the ground all around us, I was completely at peace now with a smile on my face. I opened my eyes, and Grandfather pointed out a large bull that was running with his tongue hanging out. With the window down, I could hear him grunting as he ran past us with his tongue wagging back and forth. Grandfather said, “He needs to go on a diet.” I laughed as I stuck my head out the window again and took in every moment and every sensation, my fear having been replaced by curiosity and joy. I was somehow stronger, present with my whole self. The thunder inside me had healed me of fear, a fear that, looking back, had built up over time as I experienced my people’s struggle with poverty and other forms of dehumanization. After this experience, I felt an enduring hope, a restoration of my own humanity, a gift from Tatanka Oyate (the Buffalo Nation)! I spent the next couple of decades of my life as close to the thunder, to Tatanka, as possible.

The thunder lives within me now as a hope of restoring Tatanka Oyate to our ancestral homelands, both the four-legged and two-legged ones. Lakota Oyate and Tatanka Oyate are one people, with a shared origin, a shared destiny, and a shared heartbeat. Despite the many struggles Tatanka Oyate has experienced, the thunder within us, the heartbeat of Unči Maka (Grandmother Earth), is the source of our hope and resilience as a people. This hope shapes our holistic vision. With the restoration of the buffalo, we reclaim our heritage, our food systems, our ecologies, our economy, our ceremonies, our spirituality, our sciences, our arts, and our humanity. We honor our ancestors and follow in the path they carved out before us. We look forward to our homelands being filled with thundering hooves, the countless species that rely on those hooves to complete their lifecycle, ecological restoration based in solidarity with our non-human relatives, an economy based on honoring the whole being of Tatanka, a healthcare system that honors our whole bodies and minds, sustainable livelihoods for our people, educational programming based in our stories and languages, and renewable energy and green infrastructure. Our vision is one of abundance for the whole community, for all living beings and all the forces that sustain that life. For us to make this vision a reality, our communities are reclaiming the strength and wisdom that comes from our collective hope. Close your eyes now and feel the thunder within you!

Photo of Joseph Gazing Wolf standing on a plain holding and looking at an owl.

Joseph Gazing Wolf (Lakota/Amazigh) is an Environmental Life Sciences PhD student and NSF Graduate Fellow. His research interests germinate from his experiences as a tribal shepherd in the Nile valley and as a buffalo range rider in the Northern Plains of the US. An emerging theme of his research is the restoration of social-ecological resilience through biocultural diversity in tribal and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, BIPOC, agricultural communities. He works to elucidate the socio-cultural, agricultural, economic, governmental, and ecological variables that contribute to social-ecological resilience and sustainable livelihoods, with a particular focus on the unique strengths, contributions, and struggles of women farmers/ranchers. In this vein, he is currently exploring locust management in BIPOC communities in West Africa and Latin America. He is developing the same approach with Tatanka (buffalo) as a model organism to explore social-ecological resilience in Native American communities throughout the Great Plains. Wolf also has a strong interest in learning about the barriers that BIPOC students experience in STEM education and research, and implementing programs to overcome those barriers. He also has several side projects focusing on the conservation of threatened native species on working rangelands and in urban environments (prairie dogs, bats). Wolf’s research is centered on a strong appreciation for collaborative (ranchers/farmers and tribal/governmental), interdisciplinary research that is a fusion of applied decolonized community-driven science and traditional ecological knowledge. He utilizes stakeholder interviews and surveys, citizen science, field observations, field/greenhouse/lab experiments, and emersion in traditional cultural events. Overall, his primary goal as a researcher is to help strengthen tribal and BIPOC community autonomy, food sovereignty, sustainable livelihoods, the revitalization of traditional arts and culture, and mental and physical well-being.