Bison Return to Fort Peck: A Special Day, 200 Years in the Making

03-22-2012 // Jack McNeel - Indian Country Today

This excerpt is from Indian Country Today

“It’s a special day,” Larry Wetsit said. “Our people have been waiting and praying about this for a couple hundred years. My relations, there were hundreds of them, starved on several occasions here as we were placed on the reservation. It was all about having no buffalo. That was the low part in our history, the lowest we could go. This is a start on the road to recovery.”

Wetsit, Assiniboine, is vice president of community services at Fort Peck Community College and he’s also been the medicine lodge keeper for over 20 years, a ceremony he learned as a young man, and a very spiritual man. “I carry the most sacred ceremony the Assiniboines have,” he said. “It’s a celebration of our life with the buffalo. What we’ve always been told, always prayed about, is that the buffalo represents prosperity. When times were good it was attributed to because our Creator gave us more buffalo. That was food, shelter, supplies, like the biggest shopping mart you could think of. We call ourselves buffalo chasers. Our people migrated with those animals. What this means to me is prosperity, the return of prosperity to our people.”

It was dark by the time the 63 bison reached the Fort Peck reservation after the long drive from Yellowstone National Park. As the trucks crossed the bridge leading to the release site, the Assiniboine people were there, singing for them as they arrived home. Others waited for them at the release site. Being on the bridge, Wetsit said, was an unforgettable and intimate moment. “We sang for them. The only ones that needed to know were us and our Creator. It was a buffalo song.”

The Fort Peck reservation is home to both the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes. “It was our brothers, the Sioux people, who did the blessing song [at the release site],” Wetsit said.

Iris Grey Bull, a Sioux member from Fort Peck, spoke about how close their ties are to the buffalo. “The waters of our reservation form the shapes of buffalo. One male is to the east and four females to the west. Recently, probably in the last year, they found a huge rock in the shape of a buffalo. They pulled it out of the ground and it stands about seven feet tall. It’s a huge rock.”

“Now they’re bringing back the buffalo,” she continued. “This is a historical moment for us. We’re rebuilding our lives. We’re healing from historical trauma.”

The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) was instrumental in making this day happen, giving both financial help and technical assistance to seek additional funding. Larry Schweiger, President and CEO of NWF, discussed his organization’s involvement. “This has been a pretty much full time job for several of our staffers,” he said. “It’s been an important work project for us because we believe it’s the right thing to do for wildlife, it’s the right the thing to do for the tribes and ultimately the right thing to do for the landscape.”

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