• Photo: Jack Dykinga/Wikimedia

When dignitaries from Canadian First Nation groups and United States tribes met in Browning, Mont., on Sept. 23, 2014, to sign a treaty establishing cooperation in restoring the buffalo on reserves and co-managed lands in both countries, it was an historic event. After all, the last time a treaty had been signed among them was more than 150 years ago.

The so-called Buffalo Treaty brought together members of the Blackfeet Nation, Blood Tribe, Siksika Nation, Piikani Nation, the Assinboine and Gros Ventre Tribes of Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, the Assinboine and Sioux Tribes of Fort Peck Indian Reservation, the Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Indian Reservation, the Tsuu T’ina Nation and the Nakoda Nation.

Leroy Little Bear, a member of southern Alberta’s Blood Tribe and a professor of native American studies at the University of Lethbridge, was at the signing ceremony, and here discusses the genesis of the treaty, the challenges it faces and more.

How did the idea for the treaty came about?
Our elders in Blackfoot country, which extends into the United States, had since about 2009 been talking about the loss of culture, the young people not learning the language and so forth, and they were worried about that. One of the things they zeroed in on was that the buffalo is a major part of our culture; we have stories, songs and ceremonies revolving around the buffalo. So they said “Wouldn’t it be great if we and our children could see the buffalo on a daily basis?” Right now, it’s a case of out of sight, out of mind. They may hear a story here and there, but they don’t see the buffalo out there.

We had numerous buffalo dialogues. Symbolically, we left an empty seat for the buffalo. Some of the questions we foresaw the buffalo asking were “Why do you want me to come back? You’ve done without me and you’re surviving,” and “If I do come back, is it just going to be the same old thing, or are you going to make any changes in your life and your ways?” All of that resulted in us saying “Hey, it wasn’t the buffalo that left us; we left the buffalo. So it’s us that has to come back.”
From those buffalo dialogues, one of the dreams was to to see free-roaming buffalo again. After we all did enough talking, we thought “Lets take another step and see if we can make this a reality.” Then, rather than just remain a small group of people talking about buffalo, we thought we should have our tribes on both sides of the border enter into a treaty about the promotion and restoration of buffalo. So the treaty is about that, but it’s also a portal to cooperation among the tribes on things such as culture, education, economics, environment and health — it speaks to all those things. If the buffalo is going to be here, for instance, we need to make sure the environment and all the ecological aspects are such that it will be able to exist.

What are some of the challenges in implementing the plan?
We know that maybe it’s not going to happen in our lifetime, at least not immediately, because there’s other stakeholders with other interests, mainly farmers and ranchers. We’re not trying to do away with their business, because it’s not an either/or approach. We want to cooperate with the farmers, ranchers and the government. I’m not sure it’s going to be like the old days, with millions of free-roaming buffalo, but at the least I hope we’ll see them almost at any time we want to.

What are the concerns of the farmers and ranchers?
One the main concerns is that they blame the buffalo for animal diseases, such as brucellosis. [Brucellosis is a bacterial disease that’s chronic and contagious, and affects mammals such as cattle, swine, bison, elk, deer, goats, sheep, horses and other ruminants, according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. It can also spread from animals to humans. — Ed.] In reality — and there’s lots of research that’s been done in this area — it really isn’t the buffalo that causes brucellosis; it’s other free-roaming animals, such as deer and elk, but nobody ever mentions them, and they’re really the carriers of the disease.

There are other concerns, like that the buffalo need to be fenced in because they don’t respect the existing fencelines and that they can easily get through them. That might be the case, but on the other hand, usually if a herd is held in an area that is semi fenced-in, once they’ve given birth to calves and raised them, they usually stick to that area, even once you remove the fences.

There are some real practical challenges, but our group realises that, and our attitude is that we want to work with people, including the farmers and the ranchers. I think there’s room for both.

Do you have to sell the idea to farmers and ranchers? And if so, how do you do that?
There’s already a good number of buffalo ranchers here in southern Alberta and in Montana, so it’s not something really new in that sense. We’ve had people that have large herds who are very supportive of the idea.

What if you’re a farmer or rancher who doesn’t keep buffalo?
Well, at this stage, we’re just preparing, because it’s a very new and developing idea. One of the things we’re moving forward with is meeting with smaller ranchers in the area.

How do Canada’s national parks fit in with the plans to reintroduce buffalo?
The idea on this side is that maybe we can work with them. Banff, for instance, is only a step or two away from introducing free-roaming buffalo. Waterton National Park and Glacier National Park, in Montana on the American side, are both very interested, so we’ve been talking with them to see if we can work together on the idea of free-roaming buffalo.

So how would this work? How would you reintroduce free-roaming buffalo into the region?
Getting the buffalo themselves isn’t a problem; we can get them pretty well any day. We could get them from Elk Island National Park, which has a strain of buffalo that was once natural to southern Alberta and the northern states. On the American side, they’ve been getting their buffalo herds from Yellowstone National Park, whenever buffalo there need to be culled.

So you’d take the buffalo from those places and just let them go? Is it that simple?
No, it’s not that simple. Once they’re introduced, we may have to semi-fence them in until they get used to that particular landscape and area.

What do you tell your grandchildren about the buffalo treaty?
I tell them stories about the buffalo. Whenever possible, I take them with me, and when we’re driving, we’ll stop at a particular place and I’ll tell them a story and say, “Here’s what I’d like you to know about this place.” My granddaughter, for instance, asks about the treaty. She’s 11, and wants to know what it’s for. I give her the same explanations I’m giving you. She knows all about it.