'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
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
With files from Bonnie Allen