Sacred Return

Bison transfer from Denver, Colorado, to Cheyenne and Arapaho People

  • Lisa Moore
  • Community Connection
  • Dec 30, 2022

Bison in Denver’s Genesee Park (above) await transfer (below) to various Tribes, including Cheyenne and Arapaho People of Denver. Richard TallBull of the TallBull Memorial Council (bottom) addresses a reverent crowd at the transfer.

SNOW FELL GENTLY on a reverent crowd of Cheyenne and Arapaho People and others gathered in Denver’s Genesee Park last March for a ceremony that signaled the healing of historic wrongs—a healing long overdue.

Denver Parks and Recreation (DPR) manages two herds of bison—known as buffalo to Native Americans. Typically it has auctioned off most surplus animals each year. But last year, for the first time, it decided to end the auction and transfer all surplus bison to Indigenous Peoples. In March it gave 15 animals to the Northern Arapaho Tribe in Wyoming, 17 to the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes in Oklahoma and one to the TallBull Memorial Council (TBMC), a cooperative of Cheyenne, Arapaho and other Indigenous Peoples who have exclusive use of about 70 acres within the city’s Daniels Park for practicing their cultural traditions. There, they honored the return of the buffalo, a sacred source of physical and spiritual sustenance.

An image of a person resting a hand on the vehicle in which bison are loaded for transfer.

For TBMC board member Bill TallBull, the event held the weight of a dark history. He and his people still live the pain of the Sand Creek Massacre, when, in 1864, hundreds of Cheyenne and Arapaho men, women and children who had gathered in the Territory of Colorado to negotiate peace were slaughtered by the U.S. military. That history is rarely taught, “but it affects me every day,” says TallBull, recalling that day’s horror and also how his people were robbed of their lands, their buffalo driven to near extinction. “They took everything from us,” he says. “Now we’re finally getting to the point where we’re sitting at the table and sharing our history. Our council’s mission is to bridge the educational gap and build understanding of who we are as Native People.” The bison transfer was one step along that bridge.

After years of discussion, the TBMC, DPR, Denver American Indian Commission and InterTribal Buffalo Council crafted the transfer agreement, which will likely continue annually, supplying bison to Indigenous Peoples across the country to promote genetic diversity in Tribal herds. “We’re trying to right historical wrongs,” says Scott Gilmore, a DPR manager who helped negotiate the agreement, which he hopes will add meaning to the city’s land acknowledgment honoring area Indigenous inhabitants. Shannon Dennison, DPR’s director of mountain parks, agrees. The city’s bison herds were established for conservation, she says, so auctioning surplus animals “didn’t meet our mission.” Dennison also notes that Denver is now allowing Indigenous residents to gather traditional ceremonial plants from city land without permits as part of its “commitment to put action behind words.”

An image of Tallbull giving a speech while it snows, surrounded by other individuals listening to the speech.

For Bill TallBull, these are promising steps on a long road toward a future where, he hopes, his people will have their own herd to manage and will again be free to hunt and fish on their traditional lands. “Open minds and desire to learn brought us to this bison donation program,” he says, “and the significance of that day feels profound. We are part of Mother Nature. My skin is brown like the dirt. My ancestors’ blood is in the dirt, nurturing plants and flowers. Look at the snow that came down on that day. It was a blessing. The day was healing for us.”

Lisa Moore is the editorial director of National Wildlife.

More from National Wildlife magazine and the National Wildlife Federation:

6 Amazing Facts You Never Knew About Bison »
Denver Buffalo Transfer Sets Strong Precedent for Tribal Allyship » 
Our Work: Tribal Bison Restoration » 

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