For thousands and thousands and thousands of years, bison nurtured the Great Plains of North America and Native American culture. Immense herds grazed and enriched the grasslands and mountain foothills of the continent. As bio-engineers on this landscape, bison shaped plant communities, transported and recycled nutrients, created habitat variability that benefited grassland birds, insects, and small mammals, and provided abundant food resources for species such as grizzlies and wolves. Bison, more than any other species, linked Native people to the land. Following the great extermination of the 19th Century, bison have been absent from these cultures and landscapes. There is growing recognition that the loss of bison has led to the deterioration of the ecological health of the area and represented a profound cultural loss to Native peoples across North America.
The grazing influence of thundering herds of buffalo has been missing from Blackfeet Country for over 125 years. The ecological integrity of the landscape is adversely impacted by the absence of this keystone native herbivore. A less known but equally significant impact resulting from the disappearance of wild buffalo (iinniiwa) has been the cultural dissipation among the Blackfeet People. The Blackfeet have always recognized and maintained a deep commitment to the land and wildlife within it. With the absence of iinniiwa, they are no longer capable of expressing that relationship through ancient cultural and spiritual practices. The loss of this traditional cultural context has in turn diminished the deep, rich relationship that existed prior to the extermination of iinniiwa. Restoring some aspects of the spiritual and cultural relationship with iinniiwa could inspire a new future for these lands and their people. Developing a new culturally relevant vision for conservation could lead to a unique opportunity to restore buffalo as a native grazer and restore ecological, spiritual, and cultural integrity to the ecosystem.
The Iinnii Initiative-A Dialogue for Bison Restoration
Beginning in May 2010, members of the Blackfoot Confederacy (Kainai, Siksiika, Piikani and Amskapipikuni) held a series of transboundary dialogues that brought together elders and tribal members to create a grassroots restoration vision for Blackfoot country. These elders and tribal members participated in traditional dialogues where they shared relevant spiritual, cultural and political views and spoke passionately about the return of ii-nii-wa, health of the land, and well being of the Blackfoot people.
This article has been edited and adapted from: A Bison Conservation and Restoration Initiative for the Blackfeet People