The Buffalo

The Keystone To Indigenous Wellness

By Danielle Vienneau

Photography by Johane Janelle

“Since time immemorial, hundreds of generations of the first peoples of the First Nations of North America have come and gone since before and after the melting of the glaciers that covered North America. For those generations, Buffalo has been our relative. Buffalo is part of us and we are part of Buffalo culturally, materially, and spiritually. Our ongoing relationship is so close and so embodied in us that Buffalo is the essence of our holistic eco-cultural life-ways.”

Quoted directly from The Buffalo: A Treaty of Cooperation, Renewal and Restoration, the return of buffalo to Indigenous lands represents ecological balance and the hope for cultural connection and healing on a grandiose scale. Many nations, Indigenous organizations and conservation groups in Canada and the United States are leading the movement toward returning buffalo, or the American bison, to ancestral grazing lands to restore and preserve this keystone species. 

Buffalo are fundamental to countless relationships in our natural world and they need safe spaces to fulfill that ecological role. From an environmental perspective, buffalo are essential for grasslands, their grazing behaviours naturally prompt biodiversity and nurture plants, insects and other animals. The historic relationship between buffalo and Indigenous Peoples goes well beyond environmental needs. A common teaching among First Nations is ‘everything is interrelated’, and so as the buffalo nurtures the lands, it also nurtures the people, teaching and leading us to better care for our natural resources and each other. The buffalo is as much a cultural keystone as it is an ecological one, a form of cultural identity in need of revitalization. 

The Buffalo Treaty came about from Elders in Blackfoot country (Alberta, Canada, and the state of Montana, United States)  who were concerned about the loss of meaning of culture to the younger generation. The saying “out of sight, out of mind” applies here—not seeing buffalo roaming the lands has caused a disconnection to culture for many. “We need to have our young people see buffalo on a daily basis to make the connections of our culture to that very keystone animal,” explains Dr. Leroy Little Bear in a video that explains the origins of the Buffalo Treaty.  This concern resulted in what is called “buffalo dialogues”.  Those buffalo dialogues brought many people together, from youth to Elders, to talk and tell stories about buffalo.  

These dialogues created an opportunity for positive action. “We need the assistance of our brothers and sisters, our neighbors to the South. And to our surprise, everybody was of the same mind,” says Dr. Leroy Little Bear. “Our Elders said the best road to bring in all of our people together is to sign the Buffalo Treaty so that we will all work together again as Nations.”  Reviving connections and relationships became clear; however, the land was also missing the presence of buffalo. “The Buffalo is a very good environmentalist. The Buffalo Treaty speaks to conservation, so let’s all work together on conservation,” explains Dr. Leroy Little Bear. “The Buffalo Treaty speaks to education, so let’s use the buffalo as the portal for bringing our children together to learn about their culture, the land, the environment, and the cosmos. Let’s use the buffalo for teaching our children our ceremonies, our stories and our songs.” 

The Buffalo Treaty was created and first signed on September 24, 2014 at the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana and there have been more Buffalo Treaty gatherings and signatories since. Each of the signatories commits to doing research and working together in areas of culture, economics, health, education, conservation, and other environmental issues.  Dr. Leroy Little Bear confirms, “The buffalo is in the center and it’s bringing us all together.”


With the creation of the Buffalo Treaty also came the development of the International Buffalo Relations Institute. A not-for-profit organization, the Institute raises buffalo consciousness and promotes buffalo rematriation. The institute promotes the implementation of the Buffalo Treaty and its values by providing knowledge, skills, and financial resources to support Indigenous communities in returning buffalo to the landscape as a means to rebuild vital cultural and ecological connections across the great plains of North America. Katira Crow Shoe is the director of education at the Institute and is a member of the Kainai Nation of the Blackfoot Confederacy and is part of the Many Children Clan. With a background in counselling, her role at the Institute involves building a basket of resources—Buffalo curriculum that can be used within K-12 education. SAY Magazine spoke with Crow Shoe recently about the Buffalo Treaty, the role of the Institute, and how buffalo influences our holistic health.


Near the end of the conversation with SAY Magazine, Crow Shoe reflects on her past experiences working in mental health and how that impacts the work she does now. “Before I started this position, I always talked about people going through trauma, but not often about land and other species going through trauma,” she says. “When we consider that, we think about the buffalo being removed and how that must have been traumatic for many ecosystems. With the return of the buffalo the land heals, species heal, and then we as individuals and communities begin to heal.” She considers the epigenetic wisdom of Indigenous Peoples and their relationship to ‘all my relations’. “Wouldn’t that also apply to species and land? I hope everyone understands and recognizes just how important buffalo are collectively.” 


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Your donation to the International Buffalo Relations Institute would support the Institute’s operations and initiatives, all of which are centered on the implementation of the Buffalo Treaty. Through the implementation of the Buffalo Treaty, it is with dedication and action that the Institute and the Buffalo Treaty’s signatories hope to rectify a historical wrong and restore our relatives, the Buffalo, to the land for the benefit of all people and the planet.
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Documentaries to Check Out

Singing Back the Buffalo, a new feature-length documentary from award-winning Cree filmmaker Tasha Hubbard, made its World Premiere on February 24, 2024, at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Montana. Iniskim-Return of the Buffalo also premiered at the Festival and tells the story of a group of artists whose purpose is to celebrate the historic return of buffalo to their ancestral lands.  

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