Bison Reintroduction as Reconciliation in Saskatchewan

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Editor’s Note: This article is part of our ‘Coulees to Muskeg – A Saskatchewan Environmental History’ series. This series is a partnership between NiCHE and the Saskatchewan History & Folklore Society (SHFS). All articles in the series appear on the NiCHE website and are published in SHFS’s Folklore magazine. You can become a member of SHFS and subscribe to Folklore HERE. To contribute to this series, see the CFP HERE.


By Forrest Hisey, Chance Finegan, and Andrea Olive

There is no meaningful pathway towards reconciliation in Saskatchewan that does not include bison/buffalo on public lands.1 We write this as settlers in Canada and we are writing this mainly to other settlers in Canada.2 Indigenous Peoples across the Plains have long recognized the cultural and ecological significance of buffalo. We contend that the recent land transfer between the Saskatchewan and the federal governments resulting in the Prairie Pastures Conservation Area provides a potential platform for reconciliation through the further reintroduction of bison back onto the Northern Plains. Such action could support Indigenous Peoples with spaces to renew kinship ties to land and buffalo, and support reconciliation as envisioned by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Grasslands in Grasslands National Park. Sky is cloudy. A herd of bison are in the background.
Plains Bison Herd in Grasslands National Park, 2018.

Reconciliation between settlers and Indigenous Peoples is driving significant policy efforts in Canada. Yet, there is a “broad inability” to agree on one single definition for reconciliation.3 Some scholars tend to focus on reconciliation-as-process that necessarily involves the state, while others eschew the state for a focus on the role of individual Indigenous Peoples in renewing Indigenous culture and nationhood.4 In this latter view, many state-sponsored efforts at reconciliation fall short and are instead “moves towards innocence.”5 In other words, state-led interventions (no matter how well-intentioned) may merely re-inscribe settler power, rather than fundamentally challenging and reshaping the status quo.

A consensus is emerging among Indigenous scholars that reconciliation requires not only changes to relationships between settlers and Indigenous Peoples, but changes to human–Creation relationships as well. Gerald Taiaike Alfred, a Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) scholar, identifies five dimensions of reconciliation, one of which is “the restoration of Indigenous presence(s) on the land.”6 Similarly, Anishinaabe scholar Deborah McGregor observes that “limiting the discussion on reconciliation to relations between peoples exclusively is shortsighted, as is solely relying on a state-sponsored conception of reconciliation.”7

Instead, McGregor writes, reconciliation necessarily entails “political, legal, and relational rights and responsibilities of ‘more-than-human’ relatives … the duties and responsibilities of people to all beings, and, conversely, their responsibilities to people, that make up the concept.”8 Turning our attention to Saskatchewan, Cree author and filmmaker, Tasha Hubbard does not write about reconciliation per se, but makes clear that Indigenous “…systems of knowing and governing ourselves are irrevocably intertwined with our understanding of our relationship to those with whom we share the land.”9 Until those relationships are once again strong, rather than under constant threat, reconciliation will be out of reach.


“Many Indigenous communities across the Plains are deeply connected to buffalo in ways that transcend material use and subsistence.”


Many Indigenous communities across the Plains are deeply connected to buffalo in ways that transcend material use and subsistence. Such relations include (but are not limited to) cosmological, spiritual, political, social, and ecological.10 For example, in Crow communities, buffalo are perceived to be brothers to humans, showcasing the pluralistic relations actively (re)produced through traditions, ceremonies, and everyday life.11 Understanding the profound kinship ties between Indigenous Peoples and buffalo reframes the settlers’ mass slaughter of the species as a methodical colonial agenda designed to dispossess and dehumanize Indigenous Peoples through the erasure of intimate socio-ecologic relations. James Daschuk, a settler scholar of Indigenous history, writes that in addition to being the “single greatest environmental catastrophe,” the disappearance of the bison “brought a fundamental change in the power dynamic” whereby “Indigenous communities could not maintain their freedom.”12

Many settlers recognize bison as an ecological keystone species influencing life on the prairies through their interaction with the ecosystem.13 Among many benefits, bison are associated with increased species richness, such as grassland birds, and improved soil function through their foraging practices where their hooves aerate soil and help seed dispersal and plant growth.14 Through their ecosystem interactions and unique grazing, bison established “mosaics of vegetation,” differing grazed levels of areas which led to an increased diversity of habitat for a variety of species such as sharp-tailed grouse, swift foxes, and the critically endangered black-footed ferrets.15

Other bison-specific behaviour, such as wallowing, created large depressions which stimulated plant growth, provided habitat, and also intermittently filled with rain/snowmelt. Despite these well recognized ecological benefits, there has been far less attention among conservationists about how bison are also a cultural keystone species. For many Indigenous Peoples, bison transcend a simple ecological role and become intimately bound to threads of reciprocity, morality, kinship relations, and sovereignty.

Historical Protection, Erasure, and Reintroduction

As one of the most recognizable megafauna in North America, there is a historical and ongoing effort to conserve bison through state-run and privately managed refuges. The only legislative effort to save them, Canada’s first environmental ordinance aimed at a species at risk, was issued by Lieutenant David Laird at Fort Livingstone in 1887. It was too little, too late. Only remnant populations remained; a far cry from herds which once numbered in the thousands and punctuated the grasslands with their hooves, bellows, and bodies. Over 125 years later there is still inadequate policy to acknowledge bison as wild and protect them as a species at risk. In 2004, Canada’s Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife recommended that plains bison be considered as endangered in the wild. Yet, federal and provincial governments have failed to do so.

A stone monument at the Fort Livingstone Historic Site.
Parks Canada National Historic Site at Fort Livingstone outside of Pelly, Saskatchewan. July 2020.

In the early 20th century, some of the first protected bison in Canada were purchased from private settlers in western Montana, Michel Pablo and Charles Allard, who corralled and managed remnant herds of bison.16 These 700 animals were transported between 1907 and 1909 across the USA/Canada border and ultimately ended up in the then-new Elk Island National Park, just east of Edmonton.17 In 1969, about fifty bison were released from the park to Thunder Hills near Prince Albert National Park. Today that group, the Sturgeon River herd, is the last wild herd in Saskatchewan. The Mistawasis Nêhiyawak Guardian Program received federal funding in 2019 for protection of this herd (but still no legislation recognizes bison as endangered species).

Recently, Parks Canada has led other efforts to reintroduce bison into federally managed spaces. In 2005, seventy-one bison from the Elk Island herd were transferred to Grasslands National Park. In 2018, thirty-one bison from Elk Island were released in Banff National Park. Today, Parks Canada manages bison at Elk Island, Prince Albert, Wood Buffalo, and Riding Mountain National Parks, as well as Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site. Guiding principles behind Parks Canada’s bison management include ecological restoration, cultural reconnection, inspiring discovery, and alignment with the agency’s mandate.18


“Bison continue to be relegated to state designated (and enclosed) spaces in Canada, showcasing how settler-colonialism and conservation remain entangled through an ethos of controlling nature with attendant, systemic attempts to simplify the intimate, complex kinship relationship that bison represent.”


However, these programs require bison re-introduction occur only in spaces directly controlled by the Canadian government. Bison continue to be relegated to state designated (and enclosed) spaces in Canada, showcasing how settler-colonialism and conservation remain entangled through an ethos of controlling nature with attendant, systemic attempts to simplify the intimate, complex kinship relationship that bison represent. This ultimately further dispossesses Indigenous Peoples.

Plains Bison Herd at Grasslands National Park.
Plains Bison herd in Grasslands National Park, 2018.

Outside state-led efforts, Indigenous groups are actively pursuing the reintroduction of buffalo into traditional landscapes on their reserves and reservations. The Buffalo Treaty, consisting of over thirty First Nations and Native American Tribes on both sides of the USA/Canada border, explicitly focuses on returning buffalo to their historic range through a collaborative process alongside settler governments.19 This multifaceted agreement focuses on a broad set of guiding pillars which includes ecological, cultural, economic, health, education, and research. Alongside supporting kinship ties, these pillars facilitate partnerships with non-Indigenous actors (such as the Wildlife Conservation Society). In Saskatchewan, eight First Nations have signed the Buffalo Treaty and are currently managing bison or in the process of obtaining bison for reintroduction on their land.20

Toward Reconciliation

The federal government has already provided land inside national parks. In line with this, the government should also recognize that the Prairie Pasture Conservation Areas provides a promising opportunity for further bison reintroduction. These former PFRA pasture lands have been returned to federal control with the overall management goal of protecting critically endangered grassland ecosystems.21 The pastures consist of 800 square kilometres of grasslands that readily lend themselves to bison reintroduction, although we acknowledge that cattle ranchers will ultimately be losing a communal resource to graze their own herds.

Historically, when reintroducing a species back into its native range, the ranching community has been against these actions as they negatively impact their herds through competition, disease, and regulations.22 It also is important to note that bison are physically larger than cattle and would require reinforcing some of the pasture infrastructure (such as fences) to adequately keep them within the pastures.

Federal Pasture Lands, Saskatchewan 2018 (with Bear Paw Mountains in Montana in the background)
Federal Pasture Lands, Saskatchewan 2018 (with Bear Paw Mountains in Montana in the background)

Ultimately, while these issues are challenging for both the government and rural ranchers, settler-colonial power structures are the reason why cattle ranchers are able to graze these lands undisturbed without competition from bison. Dispossession is a historical fact in prairie landscapes; colonial policies were enacted for the promotion of private property, Anglo farming methodologies, and commodity-based agriculture.23 While cattle may contribute to a healthy grassland ecosystem, they cannot adequately fill the hoofs of bison. Only buffalo are an ecological and cultural keystone species.


“Using the Prairie Pasture Conservation Areas for bison reintroduction provides the ability to affirmatively support reconciliation by renewing Indigenous/bison kinship ties while also returning the grasslands to a more complete ecosystem.”


Using the Prairie Pasture Conservation Areas for bison reintroduction provides the ability to affirmatively support reconciliation by renewing Indigenous/bison kinship ties while also returning the grasslands to a more complete ecosystem. The presence of buffalo reify the cultural, social, spiritual, and intimate relations Indigenous Peoples have with the species and western landscapes. Both the Buffalo Treaty and Parks Canada’s re-wilding projects showcase the benefits of reintroducing buffalo. These benefits move beyond ecological or cultural issues and illustrate the multiplicity of values bison provide when present on the land. These projects also demonstrate a role for state managed spaces within collaborative settler-Indigenous reconciliation through bison reintroduction. Further reintroducing buffalo back into Saskatchewan will build toward reconciliation as well as further promote collaborative efforts between Indigenous Nations, non-governmental organizations, and settler governments grappling with cultural and ecological crises.


Dr. Chance Finegan is currently a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto Mississauga, where his work focuses on the role of parks and protected areas in settler-Indigenous reconciliation. Before coming to Canada, he worked as a seasonal park ranger/interpreter for the US National Park Service.

Dr. Andrea Olive is an associate professor in the Departments of Political Science and Geography, Geomatics, and Environment at the University of Toronto Mississauga (and the University of Toronto). She was born and raised on Treaty 4 lands in Saskatchewan and much of her research is tied to the grasslands ecosystem. Broadly speaking, she is interested in wildlife conservation politics, especially in Canada and the United States.


Notes

  1. Scientifically the species is known as bison bison, but is referred to as “bison” or “buffalo” in common parlance.  Many Indigenous groups across the Great Plains use the term buffalo. We use the terms interchangeably.
  2. Forrest was born on Treaty 6 lands in Alberta, Chance on traditional Cherokee lands in Tennessee, and Andrea on Treaty 4 lands in Saskatchewan.
  3. Sarah Maddison, The Limits of Settler Colonial Reconciliation: Non-Indigenous People and the Responsibility to Engage (Singapore: Springer, 2016).
  4. Damien Short, “Reconciliation and the Problem of Internal Colonialism,” Journal of Intercultural Studies 26.3 (2005), 267-282, doi:10.1080/07256860500153534; Jeff Corntassel, “Re-envisioning resurgence: Indigenous pathways to decolonization and sustainable self-determination,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1.1 (2012).
  5. Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization is not a metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, education & society 1.1 (2012), 9.
  6. Gerald Taiaiake Alfred, “Colonialism and State Dependency, International Journal of Indigenous Health 5.2 (2009), 56.
  7. Deborah McGregor, “Mino-Mnaamodzawin: Achieving Indigenous Environmental Justice in Canada, Environment and Society 9.1 (2018), 13.
  8. Ibid 13.
  9. Tasha Hubbard, “The Call of the Buffalo: Exploring Kinship with the Buffalo in Indigenous Creative Expression”(PhD Dissertatin, University of Calgary, 2016), 22.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. James Daschuk, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Indigenous Life (Regina, Saskatchewan: University of Regina, 2019.
  13. R. Grace Morgan, Beaver, Bison, Horse: The Traditional Knowledge and Ecology of the Northern Great Plains (Regina, Saskatchewan: University of Regina Press, 2020).
  14. Phyllis Picardi, “Bison,” Defenders of Wildlife, accessed 10 February 2020, https://defenders.org/wildlife/bison.
  15. Joe C. Truett, et.al, „Managing Bison to Restore Biodiversity,“ Great Plains Research 11.1 (2001), 125.
  16. Ken Zontek, Buffalo Nation: American Indian Efforts to Restore the Bison (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2007).
  17. Graham A. MacDonald, The Beaver Hills Country: A History of Land and Life (Edmonton, Alberta: Athabasca Press, 2009).Retrieved from http://deslibris.ca/ID/432371.
  18. Adam Zier-Vogel, “Banff bison 101,” Parks Canada, accessed 10 February 2020, https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/pn-np/ab/banff/info/gestion-management/bison/info.
  19. “Relationship,” The Buffalo: A Treaty of Cooperation, Renewal and Restoration, accessed 10 February 2020, https://www.buffalotreaty.com/relationships.  
  20. Ibid. Those First Nations include Mistawasis Nêhiyawak, Okanese First Nation, Star Blanket Band, Peepeekisis Band, Sakimay First Nation, Ocean Man First Nation, and Phesant Rump Nakota First Nation.
  21. “Governments of Canada and Saskatchewan join forces with ranchers to protect biodiversity in Saskatchewan,” Environment and Climate Change Canada, September 8, 2020, https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/news/2020/09/governments-of-canada-and-saskatchewan-join-forces-with-ranchers-to-protect-biodiversity-in-saskatchewan.html.
  22. Curtis H. Freese, et.al., “Second Chance for the Plains Bison,” Biological Conservation 136.2 (2007): 175-184, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2006.11.019.
  23. Katie Doke Sawatzky, “The Lost Gem of the PFRA Community Pastures,” Prairie Commons.ca, October 1, 2018, http://www.prairiecommons.ca/?page_id=156.
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Forrest Hisey

I am a Ph.D. student in Human Geography at the University of Toronto. My interests focus upon human-environment interactions and socio-ecologic relations. Current research is focused toward transnational land policies, conservation, and interactions on public/crown lands in Canada and the USA. My past research focused on public pasture usage/conservation in Saskatchewan and ecological connectivity on public and private lands in central Alberta.

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