Denver, CO

Closing the circle: Why Denver donates buffalo to indigenous tribes

Claire Cleveland

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An American bison.NADExRioTic / Pexels

By Claire Cleveland / NewsBreak

(Denver, Colo.) In March, Denver donated 33 bison to three Tribal Nations as part of an ongoing effort to restore bison populations on indigenous lands.

Of the 33 bison, 17 went to the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes in Oklahoma, and 15 bison headed to the Northern Arapaho Tribe in Wyoming. The city donated one bison to the Tall Bull Memorial Council in Colorado. Last year, Denver donated 13 bison to the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes and one to the Tall Bull Memorial Council.

“They’re such a majestic animal,” said Troy Heinert, the InterTribal Buffalo Council executive director. “Being a Sicangu Lakota. “When we release those buffalo on indigenous lands, it’s like they know it too. It’s bringing us full circle, and many times it’s very emotional, especially for the tribes that receive these animals.”

In the early 1800s, more than 30 million bison roamed what is now America. The American bison was almost driven to extinction through systemic slaughter by European immigrants. By 1902, there were fewer than two dozen animals.

The last remaining wild herd, with 23 animals, found refuge in the high elevation interior of Yellowstone National Park, where there are now almost 5,000 bison, the largest population of free-roaming plains bison. It is estimated that there are about 31,000 free-range wild bison in North America.

“I truly believe in the vision and mission to restore buffalo back to Indian lands for cultural and spiritual connections,” said Heinert. “I’m a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, we have a unique connection with the buffalo, and understanding its importance clear across these tribal communities, and getting to be a part of that, it’s such a great thing.”

According to the council, the mass destruction of the American bison disrupted the self-sufficient lifestyle of tribal people more than all other federal policies to date.

“For many indigenous communities, buffalo was everything to us. It provided food, clothing, shelter, tools. It taught us about other resources, where water and other plants that we needed to survive as an inidigenous people were,” said Heinert. “Buffalo aren’t viewed as a commodity to the inidigenous people, they’re viewed more as a relative.”

The partnership between Denver and Tribal Nations will continue until at least 2030.

“The Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes are pleased to continue the growth of our historical food source. The Denver Mountain Parks Bison are a shot in the arm for our tribal nations. We wish Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock, Denver City Council and Denver Parks and Recreation staff a very gracious Hohóú/Né-á’eše (thank you),” said Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes Governor Reggie Wassana in a press release.

Denver Parks and Recreation maintains two conservation herds, which are descendants of the last wild bison in North America. The city and Denver Zoo established the herds in City Park. The city moved the bison to Genesee Park in 1914 and then expanded the herd to Daniels Park in 1928, both of which are part of the Denver Mountain Parks System.

“For over a century now, Denver has been the proud caretaker of these bison herds, and we remain committed to their conservation as an integral part of the ecosystem here in the West,” Mayor Michael B. Hancock said in a statement. “We’re taking that commitment to a new level, and through this effort with our tribal partners, this is an opportunity to help establish, support and sustain Native American conservation herds across the country.”

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Claire Cleveland is a Denver-based freelance writer with a background in health and science reporting. She's covered the pandemic extensively and local news in Colorado. Previously, Claire was a reporter and producer for Colorado Public Radio.

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