Saskatchewan·Photos

'A gift of life': Buffalo returning to traditional lands through First Nations sharing

Zagime Anishinabek First Nation received 22 bison from Peepeekisis Cree Nation on Jan. 7, bringing bison back to the land for the first time in 140 years.

Zagime Anishinabek First Nation received 22 bison from Peepeekisis Cree Nation on Jan. 7

Twenty-two buffalo were released on Zagime Anishinabek First Nation on Tuesday, January 7. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

Traditional drumming rang out over Saskatchewan's rolling hills as children pressed their faces up against the fence surrounding the pasture. The community had gathered to welcome buffalo back to Zagime Anishinabek First Nation for the first time in 140 years.

"I feel like it's part of a long journey," Zagime Anishinabek First Nation Chief Lynn Acoose said on Jan. 7, the day of the ceremony.

"We're once again reconnecting with the spirit of the buffalo and we're welcoming this medicine to our land. ... It's just a joyous day for our community."

The bison — or buffalo, as they are traditionally known by many Indigenous people — were a gift from Peepeekisis Cree Nation.

Peepeekisis was originally gifted 22 buffalo from Albertan rancher Ron Steckly in 2014.

Steckly said that around that time he had been seeking spiritual guidance about how to make a difference in the world.

"I spent a lot of time praying that the Lord, my Creator, would direct me to do something," Steckly said.

Shortly after that he was approached by Loko Koa, a cultural organization whose founder, Lima Nanai, dreamed of seeing buffalo roaming the plains once more.

"It was a dream come true," said Alan Bird, the headman and one of the buffalo caretakers at Peepeekisis. "The creator blessed us on that day. Now we pay it forward."

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      Peepeekisis grew its herd to 104 animals and have now gifted 22 of those to Zagime Anishinabek — 10 of the original cows and 12 that are offspring. The animals range in age and include pregnant cows.

      "We've always been the buffalo people," Bird said. "They were very important to us. They give us food; they give us shelter. They were a gift of life to us."

      At one time, there were millions of bison on the prairies. The population rapidly declined to near extinction due to over-hunting, disease and drought. Parks Canada has been working to restore the bison population but this was a private initiative. 

      Alan Bird (left) and Ron Steckly became friends over the years of working together with the buffalo on Peepeekisis Cree Nation. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

      Steckly helped move the bison, leading them into a large trailer and driving them 100 kilometres southeast from Peepeekisis to Zagime Anishinabek.

      Children from Goose Lake School and Grenfell High School came out for the event. As soon as the animals arrived, people started gathering at the fences for a good view.

      Children cheered as the buffalo were released from the trailer onto Zagime Anishinabek First Nation. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

      Zagime Anishinabek First Nation held a smudging ceremony and gifted ceremonial blankets to the people who helped move the animals from Peepeekisis.

      As Elder Alvin Kequahtooway blessed the herd in the trailer, 10-year-old George Kequahtooway sang to call the buffalo spirit to the land.

      "I felt like my heart, just like a spirit that was coming out," George said.

      George Kequahtooway sang a call to the buffalo spirit, welcoming the buffalo back to their traditional land. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

      Elder Kequahtooway said it was the first time he has ever seen buffalo on his territory. 

      "I witnessed a couple of our people in tears to have such a festive occasion," Elder Kequahtooway said. "Things are only going to get better." 

      Zagime Anishinabek First Nation is located about 150 kilometres east of Regina. 

      Community members from Zagime Anishinabek First Nation and Peepeekisis Cree Nation posed for a group photograph after releasing 22 buffalo onto their traditional lands. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

      About the Author

      Heidi Atter

      AP/Journalist

      Heidi Atter is a journalist working in Regina. She started with CBC Saskatchewan after a successful internship and has a passion for character-driven stories. Heidi has worked as a reporter, web writer, associate producer and show director so far, and has worked in Edmonton, at the Wainwright military base, and in Adazi, Latvia. Story ideas? Email heidi.atter@cbc.ca.

      With files from Bonnie Allen

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