Bison at Pioneers Park in Lincoln, NE

The American Bison has long been of significance to Native American culture. When bison were nearly wiped out at the end of the 19th century, Native people lost not only an important food source, but an essential element in their work, lives, culture, health and economy. 

Fast forward to today, and some organizations, like the Tanka Fund, are working to restore bison to Native families on Native land. 

The Tanka Fund is a non-profit organization based in Kyle, South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The Tanka Fund started as part of Tanka Bar, which is a Native American owned organization that sells traditional foods called wasna and pemmican, which is prairie-fed bison meat mixed with cranberries.

According to Tanka Fund’s executive director, Trudy Ecoffey, The Tanka Bar realized early on that it wanted to be an all-Native product, but didn’t have a lot of bison ranchers, so they started the Tanka Fund to help return bison to Native people. 

“Buffalo are the coolest thing in the world,” she said. “If you’ve ever been around them, they bring such a power to that place that you can’t explain. The Native people with them and the joy of being with them is probably my favorite part.”

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Bison herd at Pioneers Park. Photo by Rachel Holt/NNS

The Tanka Fund only accepts applications from Native people to become a “project.” This means they are eligible to receive bison on their land after Tanka Fund’s six-member board evaluates whether the applicant has enough land, proper fencing, water, quality vegetation, and more. 

Ecoffey said Tanka Fund’s mission is threefold: The return of healthy lands, the return of healthy people and the return of healthy economies. 

For starters, buffalo help in the return of healthy lands by promoting regenerative agriculture, which is essentially an approach to farming that focuses on promoting biodiversity, creating healthy soil and reducing harmful impacts of agriculture in the environment. Bison help achieve these goals in numerous ways.

Ecoffey said overall, bison do a better job at utilizing forage than cattle, particularly forage that is less desirable. Additionally, she said in a changing climate, bison tend to be more resilient than cattle to issues such as drought and storms.

“They’re Native to this land right? They’re more in sync with the grasses, the birds, the smaller animals and the ecology of it,” Ecoffey said.

According to Josh Wiese, range manager at the Crane Trust Foundation near Kearney, bison are beneficial to the grassland ecosystems in various ways. 

Wiese said bison wallow, which is the behavior of rolling around in the dirt and creating a bowl like depression of bare soil, at higher frequency than cattle. They found the rate of Native species increased inside and on the edges of these wallows and nowhere else on the property.

“That kind of tells me that there’s probably Native species waiting in the soil for a disturbance like that, and it just so happens that bison do it so frequently and at such a volume that Native species were able to take hold in the wallow area, so it’s kind of a neat result,” Wiese said.

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Bison wallowing at Pioneers Park in Lincoln. Photo by Rachel Holt/NNS

Wiese also said the buffalo tend to be more selective than cattle in the grasses they choose to graze, creating a more mosaic effect on any individual piece of pasture. As a result, this creates a patchwork of different levels of grass heights and allows forbes to take over and grow, creating biodiversity on the land.

Adding to that, David Wedin, ecosystem ecologist and professor at UNL, said that bison on the land can create heterogeneity, which is the quality or state of being diverse in character or content, by being selective grazers. 

Apart from healthy lands, Tanka Fund’s mission is also the return of healthy economies by setting up Native people as bison product producers.. 

Ecoffey said a lot of their projects will use the bison provided to them in various ways. Some will profit by using bison herds for meat production and distribution, like the Tanka Bar, and others might use it for tourism or hunting.

Additionally, Ecoffey said they are trying to keep the money local and in Native communities by growing and selling locally processed bison meat, rather than shipping it far and wide or selling off calves to large feedlots.

Another organization that is helping in the efforts to restore Native economies, as well as healthy grasslands, is Wild Idea Buffalo Corporation.

Colton Jones, Wild Idea Buffalo sourcing manager and Cheyenne River Range Manager, said that Wild Idea Buffalo is an organization that sells and distributes bison meat with the goal of restoring grasslands and broken food systems by implementing bison on the land.

Originally started by conservationist Dan O’Brien, Wild Idea Buffalo was first formed as a way to restore the endangered peregrine falcon to the Rocky Mountains in the 1970’s and 1980’s. On his journey to restore this bird, O’Brien saw the effects that industrial agriculture had on the ecosystem as Native pastures and grasslands were flipped upside down and converted to monoculture commercial crop fields. 

O’Brien wanted to restore these Native grasslands by bringing back a keystone species: Bison.

Jones said Wild Idea Buffalo partners with a variety of different groups to run their business. One such group being indigenous communities. He said they work with many Native people and implement their values and culture into the organization. One such implementation is their humane field harvest.

Wild Idea Buffalo believes bison deserve dignity at harvest, just as they deserve room to roam. This means all buffalo are harvested on the prairie where they graze and never see the inside of a trailer or feedlot. This is traditionally how Native people harvest their own bison.

Jones said being in Lakota country, Wild Idea Buffalo employs a lot of Lakota people and they have opportunities to see their Native employees’ relationships with the bison.

He said many of their Native employees or partners work with Wild Idea Buffalo exclusively because they go through extra efforts of respecting the bison through their process and appreciating its economic value and how it provides food for their family’s table.

“Our mission is to work in collaboration with them, not in the end game being the profit, but more seeking value in the relationship itself and how the relationship between Wild Idea and tribes can be symbolic or act as a template for other tribes,” Jones said.

Jones said that Wild Idea Buffalo also helps support Native economies by partnering with Native tribes and individuals to help make a profit for their communities through a culturally important animal to them.

Lastly, Tanka Fund’s mission is the return of healthy people.

According to both Ecoffey and Jones, bison meat is a superfood. Grass-fed buffalo meat is low in sodium, cholesterol, and saturated fat and high in protein, iron, Omega-3 fatty acids and has less calories than beef, chicken and plant-based meats.

Ecoffey said returning bison to Native people not only helps restore their land and economies, but it also helps to restore their health and offers an all-natural, organic, gluten free, non-GMO alterNative to other meats for all consumers.

Ecoffey said the Tanka Fund is important to her because they are the only organization that works with and financially funds Native family and community owned projects to raise bison. Ecoffey said she hopes the Tanka Fund’s work will help Native communities grow economically and help combat some of the social justice issues that persist in reservations.

Ecoffey said right now the Tanka Fund is at roughly 100,000 acres with 1,000 bison all the way from Texas to Minnesota through South Dakota. She said their five year goal is to increase that by five and have 500,000 acres and 5,000 bison or more.

She said they hope to soon partner with other organizations like the National Park Service, who have been giving bison to tribal entities through Inner Tribal Council, an organization made up of 82 federally recognized tribes whose mission is to restore bison to Native country. 

Ecoffey said she hopes they can see their project grow and continue to see Native people positively impacted by bison.

“Can it help alleviate some of the historical trauma from the past and maybe restore a cultural piece of it? That’s what our hope is,” she said.

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Bison herd in a wallow at Pioneers Park. Photo by Rachel Holt/NNS