BULL HOLLOW, Okla (AP) — Ryan Mackey softly sang a sacred Cherokee verse as he pulled a handful of tobacco from a zip-lock bag. He reached over a barbed wire fence and scattered the leaves onto the pasture where a growing herd of bison — popularly known as American buffalo — grazed in northeastern Oklahoma.
The sacrifice represented a reverent act of thanksgiving, the 45-year-old explained, and a desire to forge a divine bond with the animals, his ancestors and the Creator.
“When tobacco is used properly, it’s almost like a contract being made between you and the spirit—the spirit of our Creator, the spirit of these buffalo,” Mackey said as a strong wind rumbled across the lawn. “Everything, they say, has a spiritual aspect. Like this wind, we can feel it in our hands, but we cannot see it.”
Decades after the last bison disappeared from their tribal lands, the Cherokee Nation is part of a nationwide resurgence of indigenous peoples trying to reconnect with the humpback whales, shaggy animals that hold a pivotal place in ancient tradition and belief.
Since 1992, the federally chartered InterTribal Buffalo Council has helped move surplus bison from locations such as Badlands National Park in South Dakota, Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, and Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona to 82 member tribes in 20 states.
“Collectively, those tribes manage more than 20,000 buffalo on tribal lands,” said Troy Heinert, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and executive director of the InterTribal Buffalo Council, based in Rapid City, South Dakota. “Our goal and mission is to bring buffalo back to Indian land for that cultural and spiritual connection that indigenous people have with the buffalo.”
Centuries ago, an estimated 30 million to 60 million bison roamed the vast Great Plains of North America, from Canada to Texas. But by 1900, European settlers had nearly wiped out the species, hunting them en masse for their prized pelts and often leaving the carcasses to rot on the prairie.
“It’s important to recognize the history Indigenous people had with buffalo and how buffalo were nearly decimated. … Now with the buffalo resurgence, often led by indigenous nations, we are also seeing that spiritual and cultural awakening that comes with it,” said Heinert, a South Dakota state senator.
Historically, Indigenous peoples hunted and used every part of the bison: for food, clothing, shelter, tools, and ceremonial purposes. However, they viewed the bison not just as a commodity, but rather as creatures closely associated with humans.
“Many tribes considered them a relative,” Heinert said. “You can find that in the ceremonies and language and songs.”
Rosalyn LaPier, an aboriginal writer and scholar who grew up on the reservation of the Blackfeet Nation in Montana, said there are several mythological origin stories for bison among the different peoples of the Great Plains.
“Depending on which indigenous group you talk to, the bison originated in the supernatural realm and came to Earth for human use,” said LaPier, an environmental historian and ethnobotanist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “And there’s usually some kind of story about how people were taught to hunt bison and kill and harvest bison.”
For example, her Blackfeet tribe believes there are three realms: the sky world, the underworld – that is, the earth – and the underwater world. Tribal lore, says LaPier, holds that the Blackfeet were vegetarians until an orphaned bison slipped out of the underwater world in human form and was taken in by two caring humans. As a result, the underwater bison divine leader allowed more to come to Earth to be hunted and eaten.
In Oklahoma, the Cherokee Nation, one of the largest Indian tribes with 437,000 registered members, had a few bison on its land in the 1970s. But they disappeared.
It wasn’t until 40 years later that the tribe’s present-day herd began, when in the fall of 2014 a large cattle trailer – driven by Heinert – arrived with 38 bison from Badlands National Park. It was greeted by emotional songs and prayers from the people of the tribe.
“I can still remember the dew on the grass and the birds singing in the trees. … I felt the hope and the pride in the Cherokee people that day,” Heinert said.
Since then, births and additional bison transplants from various locations have increased the population to about 215. The herd roams a two-square-mile pasture in Bull Hollow, an unincorporated area in Delaware County, about 70 miles away. northeast of Tulsa, near the town of Kenwood.
For now, the Cherokee are not harvesting the animals, whose bulls can weigh up to 2,000 pounds (900 kilograms) and grow 6 feet tall (nearly 2 meters), while leaders focus on growing the herd. But bison, a lean protein, could serve as a food source for Cherokee schools and nutrition centers in the future, said Bryan Warner, the tribe’s deputy chief chief.
“Our hope is really not just for the sake of food sovereignty, but to really reconnect our citizens in a spiritual way,” said Warner, a member of a United Methodist church.
That reconnection in turn leads to discussions about other fauna, he added, from rabbits and turtles to quail and pigeons.
“All these different animals — it puts you more in tune with nature,” he said as bison strolled through a nearby pond. “And then you’re essentially more in tune with yourself, because we all come from the same dirt that these animals were formed from — from our Creator.”
Originally from the Southeastern United States, the Cherokee were forced to move to present-day Oklahoma in 1838 after gold was discovered in their ancestral land. The 1,000-mile removal, known as the Trail of Tears, claimed nearly 4,000 lives from disease and harsh travel conditions.
While bison are more associated with Great Plains tribes than those with East Coast roots, the newly arrived Cherokee had connections to a slightly smaller subspecies, according to Mackey. The animals living on the tribe’s land today are not direct descendants, he explained, but close cousins with whom the tribe may have a spiritual connection.
“We don’t speak the same language as the bison,” Mackey said. “But when you sit with them and spend time with them, relationships can be built on… resources other than language alone: sharing experiences, sharing the same space, and just having a sense of respect. Your body language changes when you respect someone or something.”
Mackey grew up with Pentecostal roots on his father’s side and Baptist on his mother’s side. He still occasionally attends church, but finds more meaning in Cherokee ceremonial practices.
“Even if (tribe members) grew up in church or synagogue or wherever they want to worship, their elders are Cherokee elders,” he said. And this idea of relationship and respect and guardianship — with the land, with the earth, with all the things that live on it — has been passed down. It still permeates our identity as Cherokee people.
That’s why he believes the return of the buffalo to Cherokee lands is so important.
“The bison aren’t just meat,” he said. “They represent abundance and health and strength.”
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