Troy Heinert has helped reestablish dozens of bison herds on Native American lands, including a recent one at Badlands National Park. On this occasion, Heinert loaded up 100 wild bison into a chute and then on a truck. They’d then take a truck ride across South Dakota to join one of many blooming herds in the region.
Before heading out, he took a brief call from Iowa about another herd being transferred to tribes in Minnesota and Oklahoma. Then, another trucker called him about another group of bison going to Wisconsin.
The last of the buffalo were then shipped off and unloaded at the Rosebud reservation by nightfall. Heinert lives at Rosebud. The following day, he went back across the state to the Badlands to load yet another 200 bison on his truck. This group of bison would be headed to the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe.
Most bison across North America are treated the same as cattle in commercial herds.
“Buffalo, they walk in two worlds,” Heinert said. ”Are they commercial or are they wildlife? From the tribal perspective, we’ve always deemed them as wildlife, or to take it a step further, as a relative.”
Around 82 tribes across the U.S. — from New York to Alaska — now possess more than 20,000 bison in 65 herds. That number has been increasing rapidly in recent years. Moreover, the movement among Native Americans to reclaim stewardship of this animal has grown, too. Their ancestors lived alongside the buffalo and depended upon them for thousands of years.
Native American Tribes Reclaiming Bison
European settlers destroyed the way of life for these native tribes, slaughtering the bison in droves. Bison almost went extinct until conservationists, including President Teddy Roosevelt, intervened to re-establish a small number of herds largely on federal lands.
However, Native Americans were oftentimes excluded from those initial conservation efforts.
Now, the tide has turned. Many conservation groups have recently partnered with tribes, and some are even stepping aside for the tribes. The goal for many Native Americans is to restore bison to their former glory.
Heinert, 50, is a South Dakota state senator and director of the InterTribal Buffalo Council. He views his job as incredibly pragmatic. He brings the bison to tribes that want them, from 2 to 200 bison. According to the AP, Heinert “helps them rekindle long-neglected cultural connections, increase food security, reclaim sovereignty and improve land management.”
So far this fall, Heinert and his group has moved 2,041 bison to 22 tribes in 10 states.
“All of these tribes relied on them at some point, whether that was for food or shelter or ceremonies. The stories that come from those tribes are unique to those tribes,” he said. “Those tribes are trying to go back to that, reestablishing that connection that was once there and was once very strong.”