Prior to European colonization of North America, millions of bison roamed the Great Plains. By the turn of the 20th century, those numbers had dropped to less than 1,000. The deliberate decimation of buffalo herds was a direct attack on the Native American people, who colonizers saw as an obstacle to their “Manifest Destiny,” and who the U.S. government engaged in a systematic attempt to eliminate or force into docile submission.
For thousands of years, bison were a sacred, inseparable part of life for Indigenous tribes of the Great Plains, used for food, shelter, utensils, and clothing, in addition to spiritual and emotional well-being. Wiping out the bison population nearly wiped out the Native tribes they were connected to.
Though bison numbers have increased significantly thanks to conservation efforts, governments are still grappling with the ugly legacy, and some municipalities are taking steps to try to repair some of the damage done. As one example, the city of Denver, Colorado has taken the step of giving some of the city’s bison population managed by Denver Parks and Recreation to Native American tribes engaged in bison conservation efforts.
In a unanimous 13-0 vote, Denver City Council gave the final approval Monday to donate 13 buffalo—around half of which are pregnant—to the Cheyenne and Arapaho nations in Oklahoma and one buffalo to Tall Bull Memorial Council in Colorado. In addition, Denver Parks and Recreation will no longer hold its annual auction to keep its bison herds at a healthy population size and ensure genetic diversity, but rather will work with tribal partners through the year 2030 to give surplus bison to Native tribes across the country to enhance conservation herds on tribal lands.
“This donation is the result and culmination of a very long, storied history and relationship with the State of Colorado,” Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes Governor Reggie Wassana told 9 News. “The Tribes plan to use the donated bison as a cultural, conservation and educational resource, with the goal of locating the bison on our own tribal natural plains habitat.”
“We appreciate this gift and hope to grow our relationship with the great state of Colorado,” said Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes Lt. Governor Gilbert Miles.
Denver Councilwoman Pro Tem Jamie Torres told 9 News she was “proud and honored” to carry the ordinance forward.
“This is a unique opportunity to not only return the bison to tribes across the country and support their conservation efforts but to honor those who have cared for these ancestral lands before us,” she said. “The land acknowledgment we adopted in 2020 asks us to work to dismantle legacies of oppression and inequity, and today we are doing that.”
The land acknowledgment, which is read at each city council meeting following the Pledge of Allegiance, reads:
“The Denver City Council honors and acknowledges that the land on which we reside is the traditional territory of the Ute, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Peoples. We also recognize the 48 contemporary tribal nations that are historically tied to the lands that make up the state of Colorado.
“We honor Elders past, present, and future, and those who have stewarded this land throughout generations. We also recognize that government, academic and cultural institutions were founded upon and continue to enact exclusions and erasures of Indigenous Peoples.
“May this acknowledgment demonstrate a commitment to working to dismantle ongoing legacies of oppression and inequities and recognize the current and future contributions of Indigenous communities in Denver.”
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock also acknowledged the significance of the ordinance, according to NPR, seeing the annual donations as one form of reparation.
“I don’t think it’s ever too late to acknowledge the challenges and the wrongs of the past,” he said. “We got a chance to simply apologize, acknowledge the challenges of the past and to forge a relationship going forward that allows us to exercise our common objectives around the conservation of the tribal lands and of these animals.”
Nathan Hart, executive director of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes’ business department who oversees the tribe’s herd of 530 buffalo, told NPR that the city’s donation will help the tribes toward their goal of sustaining a herd of 800.
“Everybody’s really excited to grow the herd with this addition,” Hart says. “The bison was very significant to our well-being in the past — we have still have a lot of respect for the animal.”
He also credits the bison for the tribes’ relationship-building with Denver’s city officials.
“We’re developing these relationships because of the bison,” he says. “That’s what brought us together … it all came from the bison themselves.”
Beautiful. Here’s to seeing more of these restoration and conservation efforts in the future.