I like buffalo.
It’s insane that 30 to 60 million used to roam these lands. Then the white man came along, seeking the American dream. That meant pushing the American Indians out. While carving out a better life for themselves, settlers introduced booze and disease to the American Indian, waged anthropological warfare at mission schools and shot bison for hides, leaving untold numbers of bison corpses to rot and eliminating a source of life for tribes. Railroads and western expansion almost put the nail in the buffalo coffin. In 20 years from 1849-69, millions of animals were reduced to just a few thousand. The incredible waste perplexed tribes, which didn’t tend to waste anything, let alone a single part of the buffalo. Among those tribes were the Cherokees, which controlled huge swaths of the southeastern United States and once hunted the wood buffalo in the Smoky Mountains. After settlers arrived, the region’s buffalo disappeared. Dark chapters that followed entailed bloodshed, hatred, and bitterness and in 1838, the Cherokees were pushed to Oklahoma via a death march known as the Trail of Tears, landing in what is now Tahlequah, Okla.
Today, Tahlequah is the capitol of Cherokee Nation, the largest federally recognized tribe in the U.S. with a casino empire, 9,000 employees and an annual budget of $1.2 billion. I caught wind that Cherokee Nation would be getting a load of bison from the Badlands to restore a herd and got the go-ahead to travel there for work and see what it was all about. I’d never been this far east in Oklahoma. The state continues to surprise me for its ecologic diversity. Western Oklahoma has small mountains, prairie and mesa. Northeastern Oklahoma has rolling, wooded hills. The eastern landscape reminds me of the Midwest.
It’s kinda crazy in Oklahoma how you can drive and drive and hardly pass anything but fields and woods and red dirt. Then, you might pass by a huge refinery or a casino, and next you’ll hit a commercial area laced with Hobby Lobby and Bed & Bath & Wal-mart before arriving at a bustling, historic little town center. That’s been my experience in exploring the corners of the state before, and the same happened on my journey to Tahlequah. There are a lot of little towns in Michigan, my home state, that are just sad and gutted like the sad and gutted factories around them that were once the mainstay of the mitten’s economy. The landscape in Oklahoma gives you a visual on how oil, minerals, cattle and casinos that dot the landscape hold up economies of tiny towns throughout the state. That being said, rural poverty is a major problem, also. Nowhere is perfect.
But I digress…
I arrived in Tahlequah the night before a bison release was scheduled on tribal lands. I didn’t want to hole up in a hotel room, so that evening I wandered into the town and chatted up locals. That’s where I met a cool cat named Richard Fields. He was raised on an allotment of land outside of Tulsa with six brothers and sisters. He calls it the homestead. Richard makes Cherokee bows and speaks the language fluently. He’s one of about 10,000 people left who talk Cherokee in the U.S.
“Osiyo,” is “Hello” in Cherokee, btw.
Richard and his pals at the gallery were really nice. We made plans to try and meet up for lunch the next day at an elder community center. I like the tribe’s use of the world “elder” over “senior.” I was thinking maybe an elder at the center might remember something about a tale passed down about the buffalo from the way back. If nothing else I’d get a good Cherokee-style lunch before the drive home.
I took a walk around town and took some pics along the way.
The next morning, photag Jim and I headed out pre-dawn to meet the info officers at the tribal complex. We followed them via winding, moonlit back roads for an hour before arriving in a pasture with a small agricultural building.
After a few interviews, we headed out to see the ceremonies and release of the bison, which will be used for food and tourism.
Here are a few pics and some sound from the ceremony:
The 38 wild female bison from Badlands National Park in South Dakota traveled about 20 hours overnight with the help of a group called the Inter Tribal Buffalo Council, which has spearheaded an effort to return buffalo to tribes across the country.
I had my cowgirl boots on *just in case* they needed a hand wrangling something. However, instead of bison running to freedom over the undulating landscape with me valiantly riding a horse alongside the herd, a cowboy had to coax them out of a cattle car with sweet nothings while media watched behind a fence. The animals weren’t too keen on coming out to a holding area that had been set up to help them eat and acclimate to their surroundings.
Here’s the cowboy coaxer:
We headed over to the holding area to get a better look at the animals.
Grumpy buffalo will gouge each other to death, and thus, it was important to keep them calm through the process, the cowboy told me. This buffalo looked to have a leg injury and an eye problem, but all others made it through unscathed, it appeared. Crazy eyes looks like she wants to kill me, though.
The buffalo are 100 percent free range, wild animals who will eventually roam 1,000 acres of Cherokee land and feed on grass only. Ten males are on the way next week; the herd will continue to grow over the years and more bison will come from national parks, including Yellowstone, which apparently has a much sought-after buffalo gene pool.
The elders I talked to at lunch after the ceremony had no recollection of tales passed down from ancestors. I did, however, get some bangin’ corn bread.
Here are some more pics of buffalo in case you just can’t get enough.
Thanks for reading, come back again! Have you ever seen bison / buffalo in the wild or on a ranch? Where/when/what was that experience like? Buffalo jerky v. beef jerky. Discuss.