WORDS BY MÉLISSA GODIN
Photograph by Russel Albert Daniels
The Frontline talks with Sicangu Lakota people, who are bringing back buffalo to heal environmental and cultural wounds.
On Oct. 30, 2020, a large truck filled with a hundred buffalo pulled into a 28,000-acre ranch in the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota.
As the buffalo unloaded from the truck, TJ Heinert, a 28-year-old rancher who had been hired two weeks earlier to care for the herd, became emotional. He stopped to take in the buffalo’s energy: he watched them move, listened to them rumble, smelt them. Heinert was witnessing his relatives return to their native land.
“It was a really beautiful sight, but it was also empowering,” said Heinert, who is an enrolled citizen of the Sicangu Lakota Oyate, also known as the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. “The buffalo are home, and it feels amazing.”
Over the past two years, the Sicangu Lakota have cultivated the largest Indigenous-managed buffalo herd in the world in an effort to bring back an animal who holds a central place in the cultural and spiritual fabric of Sicangu Lakota society. The project—which is run by the Rosebud Economic Development Corporation (REDCO), the wealth-building arm of the tribe—aims to restore the degraded landscape by reintroducing the American bison, a native keystone species also known as buffalo that has the power to strengthen and regenerate the prairie ecosystem. But the project seeks to do more than simply restore the land: the vision is to help the tribe achieve food sovereignty and bring back a cultural heritage that, for decades, has been under attack.
“It’s an amazing feeling to be with our relatives on a day-to-day basis,” Heinert said, speaking to me over Zoom on his two-year anniversary of working on the ranch. “It’s powerful.”
The History of the Buffalo
The buffalo is at the heart of the Sicangu Lakota’s creation story.
“We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the buffalo,” said Matte Wilson, the food sovereignty director of the Sicangu Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization serving the Sicangu Lakota through programs focused on health, housing, and more.
In the Sicangu Lakota’s origin story, it was the buffalo that sacrificed itself so that the people could live. It was because of the buffalo that families had food to eat, clothes to wear, and tools to build. These communities used every part of the buffalo, developing the bison economy and relying on the animal for trade and wealth. Throughout the tribe’s history, the Sicangu Lakota have also turned to buffalo as ecological teachers, said Heinert, who learned how to care for the land from the buffalo.
Buffalo were also a central part of the Sicangu Lakota’s diet. Scientists and anthropologists believe that the Sicangu Lakota’s buffalo-based diet, which is higher in protein than beef, kept them healthy and may explain why, in the 1800s, they were considered the tallest population in the world.
“Buffalo were a huge part of our existence,” said Clay Colombe, the CEO of REDCO. “But it’s not just our food—it’s so much more. We think of them as a relative.”
When colonizers began expanding across North America in the 16th century and embarked on a quest to eliminate Indigenous cultures, they knew that the key to destroying the social fabric of the Sicangu Lakota was to eliminate buffalo. In the 1800s, the U.S. government promoted mass hunting of bison. By the end of the century, fewer than 1,000 buffalo remained of the estimated 30 million to 60 million that had once roamed this region, destroying the bison economy. With the death of buffalo came the death of many Indigenous cultural practices.
“There is a lot of mirroring of what happened to the buffalo and to Indigenous people,” Wilson said. “The buffalo was targeted by colonizers to control us through our food system. Both the buffalo and Indigenous people were decimated at the same time. It is a story within our own.”
The Return of the Buffalo
Colonialism touched virtually every aspect of Sicangu Lakota life. Protein-rich bison was replaced with processed meat, leading to poor health outcomes that persist today. The Rosebud Sioux Tribe, which consists of over 33,000 members, now has a 44% poverty rate and 83% unemployment rate among its members. The reservation relies largely on imported food and government concessions, Wilson said.
“I grew up eating processed food,” he went on, noting he only tasted his first fresh vegetable at a middle school salad bar.
Like many people, Wilson did not understand the links between colonization and the loss of Indigenous food systems when he was younger. “I didn’t realize these systems were designed to oppress Indigenous people.”
Now, it is precisely that food system that Wilson wants to dismantle and transform.
From the outset, Wilson’s goal was to revive the Rosebud Reservation’s food sovereignty. By 2020, Wilson and his team brought back the seven-generation food system vision, an ancient Indigenous belief to create a better world—and a better food system—that will serve seven future generations. They turned to their community for guidance, organizing roundtables to learn more about what members wanted to see change.
“Buffalo was the biggest thing that came out of those conversations,” Wilson said. “Our people wanted buffalo on our land and in our diets.”
REDCO developed a plan in collaboration with international environmental group World Wildlife Fund. By 2020, the tribe was leasing a ranch on the reserve, opening the Wolakota Buffalo Range that today is home to more than 1,000 buffalo. Though the project has been operating for only two years, the impacts on Sicangu Lakota life are already visible.
Since buffalo have been reintroduced, Indigenous grasslands have returned to the area as invasive species have diminished, Heinert said. The land used to be home to a cattle ranch that, for years, had depleted the soil. Since the project began, soil health has improved, and natural species have come back, including birds.
“It’s not just impacts you can see with your eyes,” Heinert said, noting that land surveyors have expressed soil quality improvement since the project began.
“Both the buffalo and Indigenous people were decimated at the same time. It is a story within our own.”
Reintroducing buffalo to the land will also help mitigate climate change impacts. The Midwest is at risk of, yet again, becoming a dust bowl. Dust bowls happen when high winds pick up dust from drought-stricken plains, which then create blinding and polluting storms. Already, the region is experiencing dust storms in large part because native prairie grasslands have been destroyed by farming practices that rely on monocrops, which deplete soil health.
This, combined with a prolonged drought season, has turned the soil to dust. Climate change is already more than doubling the likelihood of dust bowl conditions. By helping regenerate the land with buffalo and bringing back stronger native grass species, the Sicangu Lakota believe they can reduce the risk and intensity of these storms.
Buffalo will also help improve health outcomes if integrated into people’s diets in the long term, replacing processed meat. But the benefits extend beyond people’s physical health: bringing back bison has already helped heal mental, spiritual, and cultural wounds.
“Food is so intersectional with health, culture, and language,” Wilson said. “I think when we focus on food, the other systems will benefit, as well.”
Since the ranch opened, the community has been able to reinstate a traditional bison harvest, where hours are spent butchering bison with knives, using ancestral techniques rather than the industrial saws popular today. Community members have also launched workshops to teach people about traditional practices, such as spiralizing and drying winter squash. Young people have begun harvesting wild berries and learning their native language.
“I didn’t grow up with that,” said Wilson, who is now 30. “It wasn’t cool to be Lakota. It wasn’t cool to be Native.” In recent years, however, he has seen this change.
A few months ago, children at the Wakanyeja Tokeyahci Lakota Immersion School wrote a song about buffalo, which integrated ancestral stories about baby bison. “People are proud of who they are,” Wilson said.
Younger people have also started growing their own gardens, Wilson shared, something older generations have historically been resistant to do. Many elders were forced into farm labor on reservations. Farming was not a part of the culture of the Sicangu Lakota, who were traditionally hunters and gatherers. But many young people feel revitalizing culture also means adapting it to the 21st century and injecting new meaning into activities that were once traumatic.
Though many are hopeful about the potential for buffalo to transform life on the Rosebud Reservation, they also know their environment is increasingly vulnerable to a new force: climate change.
“Being out here, you can tell the climate is changing,” Heinert said, noting that one of the nearby creeks recently ran dry. “Things are changing, and it’s scary.”
Perhaps more than anyone else, Indigenous people know what it feels like to lose things: to watch rich soil turn to dust, to see sacred beings slaughtered. They know that once something is lost, it can not be fully recovered.
“It will never be the same as it was back then,” Heinert said. “But we can take steps closer to get there.”
As Heinert speaks to me on a crisp fall morning, the autumnal dawn light streams in through his window. When we finish our call, he will go back to the ranch, where native grasslands are regrowing, changing the tapestry of the rolling hills that surround him. Buffalo will roam freely through the grasses, stopping at familiar water sources for a drink. Birds that have recently found their way back home thanks to the return of native flora will chirp and sing again. As he does every day, Heinert will choose to focus on all that can be recovered—and all that we still have a chance to save.