Bison numbered as many as thirteen million, in what is now the state of Montana, before Euro-American settlers invaded the area and exterminated this majestic animal.
The bison were fundamental to the Blackfeet people culturally, spiritually and materially. The immense herds of bison provided the Blackfeet with their material needs, such as food, lodging, clothing, weapons, tools, and ceremonial items. They also held the bison in high esteem as a great spiritual entity. As a tool of genocide, the United States government and settlers purposely exterminated the bison to starve plains Tribes that relied on the animal for food, and to reap the financial benefits from selling the hides.
Between 1874 and 1877 alone, one hundred thousand were slaughtered. By 1884, the bison were essentially extinct. The last documented buffalo hunt in the US took place in 1884, when the starving Blackfeet travelled to the Sweetgrass Hills. The winter of 1883-1884 is called the "Starvation Winter" because six hundred Blackfeet starved to death. Between 1892 and 1894, 4,500 of six thousand Blackfeet living in Montana died from starvation and small pox. The decimation of the bison not only meant utter disaster for the Blackfeet, but also harmed the ecological integrity of grasslands and ecosystems like the Badger-Two Medicine.
The bison and these landscapes co-evolved with one another, creating a symbiotic relationship. Grasslands of North America produce one third more growth each year, than will naturally decompose. This overgrowth chokes the soil and prevents healthy plant growth, without grazers or fires to remove that overgrowth. The manure and urine of grazing bison provide vital nutrients to the soil and their hooves stir the soil, burying seeds and creating pockets for moisture absorption. The ecological benefit to the soil, in turn contributed to the evolutionary success of over one hundred bird species.
Because bison lived in huge, tightly packed herds, as a defense mechanism from predators, grasslands evolved to thrive under conditions of brief and intense grazing, hoofing, and defecating, with long periods of recovery. Bison also stay clear of sensitive riparian areas (the interface between land and rivers or streams) because of the prevalence of predators. The damage from bison grazing in these areas is very minimal. These ecological benefits cannot be said of cattle because they graze around one spot for extended periods of time and congregate in riparian areas, damaging those fragile ecosystems.
According to Blackfeet elders, prophecies say, “when the buffalo return, a new strong Blackfeet woman will raise up Blackfeet warriors to move the Blackfeet Nation into a brighter future." Recently, the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council passed a proclamation mandating the return of bison into the Badger-Two Medicine. They will work with the Forest Service to re-introduce eighty-nine wild bison.
The proclamation emphasizes that the "buffalo has been central to the Blackfeet Culture, it's life blood, individual, community and the entire way of life for the Blackfeet people, since time immemorial and... The Buffalo has been recognized by all the Buffalo Treaty Tribes, including the Blackfoot Confederacy, as a symbol of cultural values and cultural integrity and... The Badger-Two Medicine Traditional Cultural District is incomplete without the Buffalo, a being at the center of the Blackfeet universe as it relates to Blackfeet culture and... The Blackfeet Tribal Business Council does hereby proclaim that returning of Buffalo to the Badger-Two Medicine is an act of Blackfeet Cultural renewal to more fully restore Blackfeet culture in the area for thousands of years."
GTMA applauds this measure and fully supports the Blackfeet Nation's efforts to restore Blackfeet culture in the Badger-Two Medicine. Read more about the proclamation.