by Trudy Ecoffey, Tanka Fund Executive Director
“The buffalo represents the people and the universe and should always be treated with respect, for was he not here before the two-legged peoples, and is he not generous in that he gives us our homes and our food? The buffalo is wise in many things, and thus we should learn from him and should always be as a relative with him.”
– Oglala Lakota holy man Black Elk in The Sacred Pipe, 1953
I was honored one time to be able to help some of Black Elk’s relatives clean up the area in which Black Elk was returned to the Earth. My children have relatives that are buried nearby, and we happened to be in the same cemetery as Black Elk’s relatives on that day. We assisted them in cleaning away the dried flowers, mowing around that area and removing the weeds near his grave. I could feel his spirit there and I told my children about him and his importance to the Lakota people in his telling of the spiritual and cultural aspect of the Lakota people. It was a great honor for us…. I think he would be glad that Native people are learning to respect the animal and land again as reintroductions of the animals continue.
I was fortunate enough to get up close to some buffalo this last month as I visited with producers. I finally was able to get out and take soil samples and pictures of vegetation for a grant that Tanka Fund has with Cedar Tree Foundation. The samples will give us some ideas of what the baseline of nutrients are in the soil in newly established buffalo pastures. This will help us better understand what is going on above ground as well, and figure out ways to protect and preserve the plants that grow there. This will ultimately help us make better decisions on how to manage the animals.
It was good to commune with the buffalo and visit about future plans with Native producers. I was allowed valuable time with the buffalo and to watch them and listen to their low grunts as they talk with each other. They seemed to be preparing for winter, as you can see how the summer smoothness of the buffalo hide now is turning to a longer, wavy rug that will keep them warm through the long winter months. The animals are heavier from all the grass eaten this spring and summer. This will help sustain them when the snow is deep. The buffalo calves are now brown and have small stubs of horns. They play and jump about with each other, less concerned where their mothers are. The older breeding bulls have left the herd and roam off in their bachelor groups. The older bulls continue to be the sentinels as they watch from a distance, content to be alone.
Restoring the Buffalo to Native Lands and Lives
With preparation for the upcoming months of winter, there is also great excitement in the air. The REDCO (Rosebud Economic Development Cooperation) Wolakota Buffalo project just brought in 20 head of buffalo to their newly fenced “Mustang Meadows” range on the Rosebud Reservation. I was not able to attend as the buffalo came in, but one of the Tanka Board members and several friends were able to attend. I could tell by their Facebook posts how excited they were on this historic event. Tanka Fund will be able to regrant some funds to assist with the project, and we look forward to an exciting future watching the buffalo project grow.
I was able to go to Worland, WY this last month to present at the Washakie Museum for their Indigenous Day celebration. The beauty of the Wind River Dancers from the Shoshoni and Northern Arapahoe tribes gave me goosebumps as they showed the visitors their way of celebrating. It has been a while since I have heard the powwow drum due to no gatherings this summer because of COVID. With many safety measures in place, I presented on Tanka Fund. The tribes from that area of the Wind River were just recently able to get buffalo after over a century and a half of time. The excitement of one of the elders explaining how amazing it was to have them back among them was something I will never forget.
Tanka Fund was able to regrant to other buffalo projects this last month as well. Four new buffalo projects are working on infrastructure to prepare for the return, and several projects that have had animals for a time, but need to continue to increase their infrastructure and land base, were regranted much appreciated dollars.
One of the projects is in the state of Alabama, called Ekvn-Yefolecv. It is some of the traditional homelands of the Maskoke people. They hope to regenerate an area to reintroduce buffalo and restore the Maskoke people’s connection to the animal. They are using a holistic approach to the land, but also want to revitalize their language and dance that has a deep connection to the buffalo culture.
Tanka Fund is excited to be a small part of this. We think of buffalo mainly as an animal of the Plains, but across what is now known as North America, many Native people had relied upon the animal for food, shelter and a cultural way of understanding. We want to make sure that those that have the desire to make this happen have some avenues of assistance. The Native people from these tribes want to learn to do everything possible to protect the land and the animal, and preserve the culture to respect these animals. They want to watch and learn and be a relative to them again. Black Elk, I think, would be very proud and thankful that this connection has not been lost and the future looks bright.
Support the Return
With that said and with great anticipation, Tanka Fund is launching our first annual fundraising campaign called “Support the Return” that will run through the month of November in honor of National Bison Day on November 7 and National Native American Heritage month. We will be having a live panel of Tanka Fund board members; a cooking demonstration by Lisa Iron Cloud, a local Pine Ridge native that uses indigenous local foods to create wonderful meals; a short video presented by Sean Sherman, world-renowned creator of The Sioux Chef and author of Indigenous Kitchen; short video clips of Native bison producers on what the Return means to them produced by Arlo Iron Cloud, local videographer and media specialist; and short clips from Tanka Fund funders and supporters on what the Return means to them.
There will also be a way for our supporters and followers to connect and take part in several contests. Winners will be awarded prizes from our sister organization, Native American Natural Foods – Tanka Bar products; products from Bison Star Natural; a signed copy of Sean Sherman’s book; and the Tanka Fund Return blanket or an absolute beautiful original painting by Don Montileaux, Lakota artist, with his interpretation of “Two Bulls” on ledger paper.
Please make sure to connect with us on Facebook and stay tuned with updates on our web page as we launch this first campaign. We want to continue to support buffalo restoration and regenerative agriculture on Native lands in a bigger way. We have been working with a wonderful crew from Niman Ranch that is helping us make this a virtual experience that you will want to take part in. As we move into the time of Thanksgiving and the holidays, we hope that you will take a few moments to experience “The Return of Tanka” with us.