Indigenous scientist argues bison should return to Blackfoot reserve

For thousands of years, bison nourished the prairies and the Blackfoot people. Their near disappearance from the land 150 years ago was devastating to the Blackfoot. In this documentary, Paulette Fox explains the environmental and spiritual reasons why the bison should be brought home to southern Alberta.
Plains bison have not roamed free in southern Alberta for about 140 years, but some ranchers raise domestic bison, like the ones pictured here, instead of cattle. (Molly Segal)

Paulette Fox lives on the Blood Reserve in southern Alberta. She sees through the eyes of an environmental scientist and the heart of her Blackfoot people. And her message is clear: wild plains bison should be reintroduced into the landscape.

Fox first felt called to champion the bison when, as a young girl, the animals appeared to her in a vision. Years later, she trained to become an environmental scientist and worked with other species, but an encounter with an elder refocused her attention.

"One of the elders said 'you know it's good you're talking about the birds, the foxes, the ones you release, everyone is happy.' Then he looked at me serious and said 'if you really want to get at the heart of who we are, you gotta talk about the buffalo. You gotta think about the buffalo.'"

Bison were once a keystone species; the ecosystem was largely built around them.  "This land has nourished us and the engineers of this land have been the buffalo. They created habitats for many plants, many different species of birds, even beetles. They even would create wetlands and so their impact on the landscape obviously had a huge impact on our lives."

Removing a keystone species has a drastic impact on an ecosystem.

Wild plains bison haven't roamed the prairies for over a hundred years. Fox argues that reintroducing the bison would not only enrich the land, but also strengthen the spiritual well-being of the Blackfoot people on the Blood Reserve.

Paulette Fox (right) receives a gift of bison fur from her cousin Dan Fox (left). (Molly Segal)

Environmental and spiritual symbiosis

Before Europeans settled the North American west, it's estimated there were tens of millions of plains bison. For ages, the Blackfoot people and the plains bison lived in a kind of environmental and spiritual symbiosis.

The Blackfoot used bison hides for shelter and burned their dung for fuel in a prairie ecosystem where firewood was not readily available. Bison were also central to the spiritual life of the Blackfoot.

By the late 1800s, the plains bison were nearly gone, due to settler expansion and the growth of the fur industry. There are also reports of people intentionally killing bison to weaken the Indigenous people who'd lived on the North American plains for thousands of years.

The disappearance of bison from the landscape, coupled with harmful government policies and practices such as residential schools, took a heavy spiritual toll on generations of Blackfoot people.

"What was done to the buffalo was the worst thing mankind could do to nature... It wasn't just done to the buffalo, it was done to humanity." Paulette Fox

Reintroducing bison to address contemporary problems

Travis Plaited Hair is a youth worker who lives on the Blood Reserve. He says one of the most urgent crises the Blackfoot on the Blood Reserve has faced in recent years is overdose.

"The drugs, the opioids, the fentanyl that's hitting our reserves. We've lost a lot of our young people senselessly to a little pill. That's craziness."

In 2015, the Blood Tribe enacted a state of emergency after a series of deaths related to Oxy 80, a street drug containing the highly addictive fentanyl. That's also when the reserve started issuing naloxone to counter overdoses.

While the death toll has gone down, there are still some overdoses related to the drug.

Plaited Hair says reintroducing bison to the landscape will help his community to heal.

"It's going to give us strength that we need. We're going through a lot of issues in our communities, not only here on the Blood Reserve, but right across Canada and the United States. Our young people, a lot of them are lost and it's because they don't have an identity. They're practicing a foreign culture, foreign way of thinking… But little did they know, they have something special. We do have a real identity. We're not in history books. We're here, we're alive… The buffalo is going to symbolize that independence as a people. So the more you see of the buffalo free-roaming, and then you add the oral history to it and teach our young people the importance of it, it will only make it only make us stronger."

In July, Travis Plaited Hair sets up his teepee for the Sun Dance, a traditional Blackfoot ceremony. (Molly Segal)

Travis Plaited Hair and Paulette Fox are both part of the Sacred Horn Society, a spiritual group on the Blood Reserve.

Fox concurs that the bison are integral to the spiritual well-being of her community and she wonders how to spread awareness.

"What I'm struggling with is the ones who who don't care to live anymore, who have forgotten so much about that connection with the buffalo that it doesn't even cross their mind, that they don't have hope and inspiration, that for them all is lost… How do we get the word out so that everybody is inspired enough in their journey - not to bring the buffalo home, but to be home themselves."

A movement to bring the bison home

Indigenous people in Canada and the United States are working to bring the plains bison back.

In 2014, the Blood Reserve was one of eleven communities that signed the Northern Tribes Buffalo Treaty. Paulette was there in Browning, Montana for the Treaty signing.

Two years later, the Blackfeet Nation in Montana reintroduced bison to their community.

In 2017, Banff National Park started its own reintroduction of the species.

Paulette Fox says she wants to see the same thing happen on the Blood Reserve, a desire that's shared by her elders.

"They want to be able to see those fences come down so those buffalo can cross move across the landscape in the healthy natural way that provides for the diversity on the landscape and the nourishment for us. So that's fulfilling the role. They're not just a source of meat. They're not just steak on a plate. They really nurture the land and the land nurtures us."

Click LISTEN (above) to hear Molly Segal's documentary Bringing the Bison Home. You'll meet Dan Fox whose life was turned around when he began to work with a herd of domestic bison, and hear from a cattle rancher who has concerns about introducing wild roaming bison into what has become a largely agricultural landscape.