The Blackfoot Confederacy is experiencing a rebirth in their culture. Action undertaken by the Elders has led to the first treaty signed in more than 200 years between First Nations in Canada and Tribes in the United States. This one on buffalo restoration.
“I think it’s kind of a like a rebirth of the old Indian way of doing things,” said Dr. Leroy Little Bear, talking about both the influence of the Elders in guiding the process and the restoration of the buffalo to the Northern Great Plains.
“Our people are coming together to find a common cause to work on.”
Little Bear, who serves as a professor emeritus of Native American studies at the University of Lethbridge, said Elders began the Inni (Blackfoot for buffalo) Initiative in 2009, recognizing the need for cultural revival.
“We know the buffalo is not the only aspect of culture but it’s a very important part of culture. It is used in religion and sacred societies. Stories revolve around the buffalo,” he said. “If we were able to bring the buffalo back into our midst, if the kids were able to see the buffalo on a regular basis, that part of our culture would come back to life.”
But buffalo goes beyond culture, said Little Bear. Buffalo are also about caring for the land, environment, and healthy eating.
Numerous “emissary trips” took place over the past years. Elders met with chiefs, councils and community members, as well as environmental groups, such as the Wildlife Conservation Society, in Bozeman, Mont., engaging in dialogue about the need to restore the buffalo.
“It took four or five years to get buffalo awareness, buffalo consciousness,” said Little Bear.
The result was a treaty signed Sept. 23 on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana by 11 Indians bands. Signatories in Alberta are the First Nations that comprise the Blackfoot Confederacy: Blood, Piikani, Siksika, and Tsuu T’ina; and in Montana, the Blackfeet Nation, the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre Tribes of Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of Fort Peck Indian Reservation, the Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Indian Reservation.
Keith Aune, bison program director for the Wildlife Conservation Society, chair of the IUCN Bison Specialist Group, and American Bison Society spokesperson, referred to the treaty as a “historic moment that we hope will translate into a conservation movement among Great Plains Tribes.”
Little Bear admits that the result of the Elders’ talking all those years ago is a surprise.
“The notion of actually signing a treaty was not part of the original concept, but I am not surprised it came up,” he said.
The treaty is multi-faceted and includes issues about health, environment, education, research and culture. It commits the First Nations and tribes to ongoing dialogue on buffalo conservation, introducing buffalo to the northern Great Plains, and strengthening and renewing “ancient cultural and spiritual relationships with buffalo and grasslands….”
The treaty leaves it up to each signatory to decide on how to approach buffalo restoration.
There are 58 tribes in the U.S. that are part of an Intertribal Buffalo Council, many of which have herds of differing sizes. The larger reservation sizes in the US allow for that, says Little Bear.
According to WCS, to ecologically restore the buffalo, the few remaining large intact prairies, many of which are tribally managed, need to be preserved.
In Alberta, only the Tsuu T’ina First Nation has a buffalo herd.
“On the Canadian side, probably a good way to bring about buffalo roaming is to work with the national parks,” said Little Bear.
Interest has already been expressed by the International Peace Park, which is a combination of Waterton National Park on the Canada side and Glacier National Park in the U.S., as well as Banff National Park.
“Banff is a step or two away from introducing a herd,” said Little Bear.
He also said First Nations in Alberta will work with ranchers and farmers in the region, as well as the provincial government departments of Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development and Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development.