BULL HOLLOW, Okla. (AP) — Ryan Mackey quietly sang a sacred Cherokee verse as he pulled a handful of tobacco from a zip-top bag. Reaching a barbed wire fence, he scattered the leaves over the pasture where a growing herd of bison – popularly known as the American buffalo – were grazing in northeast Oklahoma.
The offering represented a respectful act of thanksgiving, the 45-year-old explained, and a desire to forge a divine connection with animals, his ancestors and the Creator.
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“When tobacco is used in the right way, it’s almost like a contract is made between you and the spirit – the spirit of our Creator, the spirit of these bison,” Mackey said as a strong wind rumbled over the grassy field. “Everything, they say, has a spiritual aspect. Just 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 people seeking to reconnect with the humped, shaggy-haired animals that hold a crucial place in an age-old tradition and belief. .
Since 1992, the federally chartered InterTribal Buffalo Council has helped relocate surplus bison from places such as Badlands National Park in South Dakota, Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and Grand Canyon in Arizona to 82 member tribes in 20 states.
“Collectively, these tribes manage more than 20,000 buffalo on tribal lands,” said Troy Heinert, a member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe who is executive director of the InterTribal Buffalo Council, based in Rapid City, South Dakota. “Our goal and mission is to restore the buffalo to Indian Country for this cultural and spiritual connection that indigenous peoples have with the buffalo.”
Centuries ago, an estimated 30 to 60 million bison roamed the vast Great Plains of North America, from Canada to Texas. But by 1900, European settlers had driven the species to the brink of extinction, hunting them en masse for their precious pelts and often leaving the carcasses to rot in the grassland.
“It’s important to recognize the history that Indigenous peoples had with the bison and how the bison were nearly wiped out. … Now, with the resurgence of bison, often led by Indigenous nations, we are also seeing the spiritual and cultural awakening that comes with it,” said Heinert, a state senator from South Dakota.
Historically, Indigenous peoples hunted and used all parts of the bison: for food, clothing, shelter, tools and ceremonial purposes. They did not, however, consider the bison as mere merchandise, but rather as beings closely related to man.
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“Many tribes considered them a relative,” Heinert said. “You will find this in the ceremonies, the language and the songs.”
Rosalyn LaPier, an Indigenous writer and scholar who grew up on the Blackfeet Nation reservation in Montana, said there are different mythological origin stories for bison among different peoples of the Great Plains.
“Depending on which native group you’re talking to, bison originated in the supernatural realm and ended up on Earth for human use,” said LaPier, an environmental historian and ethnobotanist at the University of Illinois. in Urbana-Champaign. “And there’s usually some sort of story about how humans learned to hunt bison, kill them, and harvest them.”
His Blackfeet tribe, for example, believe that there are three realms: the celestial world, the underworld — that is, the Earth — and the underwater world. Tribal lore, LaPier says, holds that the Blackfoot were vegetarians until an orphan bison emerged from the undersea world in human form and was taken in by two caring humans. As a result, the divine leader of the underwater bison allowed others to come to Earth to be hunted and eaten.
In Oklahoma, the Cherokee Nation, one of the largest Native American tribes with 437,000 registered members, had a few bison on their land in the 1970s. But they disappeared.
It wasn’t until 40 years later that the tribe’s contemporary herd began, when a large cattle trailer – driven by Heinert – arrived in the fall of 2014 with 38 bison from Badlands National Park. He was greeted with moving songs and prayers from the people of the tribe.
“I still remember the dew that was on the grass and the songs of the birds that were in the trees. … I could feel the hope and the pride of the Cherokee people that day,” Heinert said.
Since then, additional bison births and transplants from various locations have brought the population to about 215. The herd roams a 500-acre (2 square kilometer) pasture in Bull Hollow, an unincorporated area of Delaware County about 70 miles (113 kilometers) northeast of Tulsa, near the small town of Kenwood.
For now, the Cherokee are not harvesting the animals, whose bulls can weigh up to 2,000 pounds (900 kilograms) and stand 6 feet tall (nearly 2 meters), as 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 food sovereignty, but to really reconnect our citizens in a spiritual way,” said Warner, a member of a United Methodist church.
This reconnection in turn leads to discussions of other wildlife, he added, from rabbits and turtles to quails and doves.
“All these different animals – it puts you more in tune with nature,” he said as bison strolled through a nearby pond. “And then, essentially, it puts you more in tune with yourself, because we all come from the same dirt that these animals are made of – from our Creator.”
Originally from the southeastern United States, the Cherokee were forced to move to what is now Oklahoma in 1838 after the discovery of gold on their ancestral lands. The 1,000 mile (1,600 kilometer) abduction, known as the Trail of Tears, claimed the lives of nearly 4,000 people due to illness and harsh travel conditions.
While bison are more associated with tribes from the Great Plains than those with roots on the East Coast, the newly arrived Cherokee had ties to a slightly smaller subspecies, according to Mackey. The animals on the tribe’s lands today are not direct descendants, he explained, but close cousins with whom the tribe is able to have a spiritual connection.
“We don’t speak the same language as bison,” Mackey said. “But when you sit down with them and spend time with them, relationships can be built on…other ways than just language: sharing experiences, sharing that same space, and just having a sense of respect. Your body language changes when you have respect for someone or something.
Mackey grew up with Pentecostal roots on his father’s side and Baptist on his mother’s side. He still goes to church occasionally, but finds more meaning in Cherokee ceremonial practices.
“Even though (the tribesmen) are raised in church or synagogue or wherever they choose to pray, their elders are Cherokee elders,” he said. “And that idea of relationship and respect and guardianship — with the land, with the Earth, with all those things that reside there — that’s passed down. It still permeates our identity as the Cherokee people.
That’s why he thinks the return of bison to Cherokee lands is so important.
“Bison isn’t just meat,” he says. “They represent abundance, health and strength.”