Native tribes across the United States and Canada signed a historic “Buffalo Treaty” this week to restore bison across the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains, an area where the massive animals were once plentiful.
The treaty involves close to a dozen tribes and was signed Tuesday at Montana’s Blackfeet Reservation. It is the first treaty between Native tribes in more than a century, dating back to a series of agreements governing hunting right in the 1800s.
The so-called Buffalo Treaty aims to allow for the free flow of animals across the international border and to restore the Buffalo’s role in the food, spirituality and economy of many Native American and First Nations, the Canadian synonym for native tribes.
“The idea is, hey, if you see buffalo in your everyday life, a whole bunch of things will come back to you,” said Leroy Little Bear, a member of southern Alberta Blood Tribe. “Hunting practices, ceremonies, songs — those things revolved around the buffalo. Sacred societies used the buffalo as a totem. All of these things are going to be revised, revitalized, renewed with the presence of buffalo.”
The Buffalo Treaty is meant to parrallel the 1855 Lame Bull Treaty, which established hunting rights for tribes.
“They shared a common hunting ground, and that enabled them to live in the buffalo way,” said Keith Aune, a bison expert with the Wildlife Conservation Society. “We’re recreating history, but this time on (the tribes’) terms.”
The treaty comes months after tribal leaders from the Nez Perce tribe made a bid to resume hunting bison in Yellowstone Park. The Idaho-based tribe and three others have used historic treaties and hunting rights to hunt bison that followed ancient migration routes outside the park.
Leaders argue that they should be able to hunt bison in the park as well.
“Before there was a park, there was a tribe,” Nez Perce Chairman Silas Whitman said. “Some of our members already feel we have the right to hunt in the park, but it hasn’t been exercised because we feel it would be remiss in going forward that way.”
The Buffalo Treaty aims to being bison numbers up from current levels. There are close to 20,000 wild bison in North America today, down from a low of 325 in the United States after unchecked hunting in the 1880s.