FORT YATES, N.D. — A Standing Rock Sioux winter count remembers 1882 as the year White Beard went on a buffalo hunt with the Native Americans.

White Beard was the name the Lakotas and Yanktonai of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation gave to James McLaughlin, the agent who joined the Sioux in one of the last large buffalo hunts in North Dakota.

“This was a happy, though brief, interlude for the people who were now forced to eat government rations most of the time,” a history written by the tribe in 1995 observed. By 1883, the northern herd, which once numbered in the millions, had been eliminated.

In fact, the sudden loss of the buffalo for tribes associated with Sitting Bull was a disaster that delivered an economic and cultural shock that persists today, more than a century later, according to a study by a team of economists.

The lingering adverse effects of the loss of the buffalo are dramatic, according to “The Slaughter of the Bison and Reversal of Fortunes on the Great Plains” by economists working for the Center for Indian Country Development at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

The reversal of fortunes: “Historically, bison-reliant societies were among the richest in the world and now they are among the poorest,” the researchers wrote.

The economic and social shocks were the greatest for tribes, like the Standing Rock Sioux, that relied heavily on the buffalo for their sustenance and lost them rapidly due to a massive slaughter by hide hunters in the 1870s and 1880s.

Today, tribes that once relied on the buffalo have between 20% and 40% less income per capita than the average American Indian nation, the study found.

At Standing Rock, which straddles the North Dakota-South Dakota border south of Bismarck, per capita income is $14,633, compared to $29,829 for the United States and $33,107 for North Dakota, according to figures compiled by the tribe.

More than 40% of Standing Rock residents live below the poverty level, more than three times the U.S. rate.

The abrupt loss of the buffalo also is evident in decreased relative height — a marker of health and nutrition — and higher death rates, according to the research team led by economist Donna Feir.

Once the tallest in the world, the generations of buffalo-reliant tribes born after the slaughter were among the shortest, experiencing a decline in height ranging from 1.96 inches to 3.54 inches.

“This decline more than eliminates the initial height advantage of bison-reliant people,” and provides the first empirical evidence, suggested by earlier researchers, that Great Plains tribes gained the height advantage from their access to once-plentiful buffalo, the researchers wrote.

Also, mortality rates were higher for tribes that depended on the buffalo and lost them rapidly compared to tribes that experienced a gradual loss, allowing more time to adapt. Tribes that suffered an abrupt collapse of buffalo herds lost about 25 to 35 more people, a result the researchers termed “non-trivial.”

Similarly, mothers from tribes that abruptly lost the buffalo had about 5% fewer surviving children as of 1900 and 1919.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe maintains a buffalo herd, which it uses to provide buffalo as food for tribal members and as part of ceremonies. The buffalo were a staple for the Sioux, who suffered enduring economic and cultural setbacks from the near extinction of the buffalo in the 1880s. Patrick Springer / The Forum
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe maintains a buffalo herd, which it uses to provide buffalo as food for tribal members and as part of ceremonies. The buffalo were a staple for the Sioux, who suffered enduring economic and cultural setbacks from the near extinction of the buffalo in the 1880s. Patrick Springer / The Forum

“We see this as direct evidence of higher mortality in bison societies after the slaughter of the bison,” the researchers wrote.

Suicide rates are higher among tribes that once relied heavily on buffalo.

The findings of the study likely won’t surprise Great Plains tribes, such as the Standing Rock Sioux, which relied heavily on the buffalo and have since confronted entrenched poverty, high rates of substance abuse and other problems, Feir said.

“We wrote this paper to tell a story that many native communities already knew implicitly,” she said. “We felt that it was a very important story to tell.”

The research team, which also included economists Rob Gillezeau and Maggie Jones, wrote the paper to show that the enduring effects of the rapid slaughter of the buffalo herds can be quantified and are evident today.

“This is a quantifiable narrative that holds up on empirical analysis,” Feir said. The paper, released in November, has not yet been published in a journal, but has been reviewed by other economists and was well-received.

“To be honest, I didn’t know what we would find,” she said. “I was surprised by how strong things came out in the data. I hope that it raises the profile of native economics.”

***

Petra Harmon One Hawk sometimes astonishes herself when she reflects on the fact that she is only four generations removed from the days her ancestors lived the life of the chase, wandering with the buffalo herds.

Memories of those days, when the Lakota and Yanktonai bands now living at Standing Rock reigned over a vast territory of hunting lands, remain vivid. So are memories of the hardships of the transition to reservation life and the dependency that resulted.

“It’s something that’s still very much alive,” One Hawk said. “In Lakota, there’s no past tense. So when you talk about ancestors or people who have passed away, you talk about them in the present tense.”

Her mother, Phyllis Young, remembers growing up along the Missouri River before Oahe Dam created a huge reservoir that forced them to move to higher ground. Before the move, her family lived off the land, cultivating a large garden, raising chickens and picking berries, plums and grapes. Her grandfather had a wagon and a team of horses.

The family was self-sufficient and ate a healthy diet, Young said, adding, “I lived in paradise for 10 years.”

Now, as the manager of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s elderly nutrition program, One Hawk confronts a much different world.

Residents on the reservation have high rates of diabetes and other chronic diseases resulting from obesity, which paradoxically results from the unhealthy diet so many poor tribal members must eat.

“We’re the Death Valley of food deserts,” One Hawk said. She’s working to encourage families to grow gardens so they have access to fresh vegetables.

The Head Start program at Standing Rock reports that some children eat a diet of uncooked ramen noodles and hot dogs at home, a diet "sorely lacking in any nutritional value," she said.

The nutrition program serves 430 meals per day to elders at dining sites in Fort Yates and Cannonball and through home delivery.

A few times a year, One Hawk's program can serve buffalo, donated from the tribe’s herd. Ironically, buffalo meat now is an acquired taste at Standing Rock.

Petra Harmon One Hawk. Chris Flynn / The Forum
Petra Harmon One Hawk. Chris Flynn / The Forum

“Bison meat is really lean, which is actually a challenge,” she said. “A lot of our people have become accustomed to eating beef, which is high in saturated fat.”

But, she added, “It gives us access to healthy food.”

At the supermarket, buffalo meat sells for $8 to $10 per pound, too expensive for the grocery budgets of most families, she said.

Often, buffalo is served on special occasions or in meals accompanying ceremonies. Because it is such a healthy source of protein and such an important part of the traditions of the Sioux, Young yearns for the day buffalo could be served routinely. Prepared properly, cooked slowly to make it tender and seasoned, buffalo meat is a delicacy, she said.

“I’m tired of the ritual and the novelty and the feast and the feeds,” Young said. “I want some buffalo stew and just eat it for Sunday.”

Providing access to healthy foods, including revitalizing traditional food sources, is one of the tribe’s strategic priorities.

“It’s really about community,” One Hawk said. “The way I look at it is using our traditional foods as medicine to heal our community. We’re really not going to improve our socioeconomic condition as Indians until we eat healthy, have access to healthy foods.”

In time, she hopes, buffalo will cease to be an exotic food. “It’s part of our recovery,” she said.

***

Donald Warne travels to Standing Rock every winter, where he visits the Brownotter Buffalo Ranch to hunt a buffalo.

The buffalo he harvests supplies his family in Grand Forks with a healthy source of meat for months, enabling his family to eat buffalo regularly as part of their meals. Berries from the supermarket also are a staple.

“So it’s wonderful for my family,” he said.

A medical doctor, Warne directs the Indians Into Medicine program at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences. Warne, who also has a master of public health degree, is an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe at Pine Ridge, S.D.

So when he read the “Slaughter of the Bison” study documenting the long-term adverse effects of the loss of buffalo, both economic and health-related, it immediately resonated with him.

“The buffalo provided a tremendous food supply, a very healthy source of food,” Warne said, adding that it is superior to beef. “The profile of bison is much better. In addition to that, we used every part,” sinews for thread, skins for clothing and lodging, bones for tools.

“The purposeful slaughter of the buffalo was really devastating to the Northern Plains tribes,” Warne said. “The Lakota and Dakota used to be known as the giants of the plains,” a people who grew tall and healthy on a diet of buffalo, berries, corn, beans and squash.

Dr. Donald Warne
Dr. Donald Warne

Once the buffalo were gone and the Sioux were confined to reservations, they became dependent on government rations, resulting in a diet that was much less healthy, Warne said.

Fry bread, cooked in oil, is considered a staple today, but is not a traditional Native American food; it became popular because flour, lard, shortening and sugar were prominent parts of the commodity food program — which helped fuel the obesity epidemic on reservations, he said.

Encouragingly, many tribes today have communal buffalo herds. The InterTribal Buffalo Council, based in Rapid City, S.D., is comprised of 60 tribes from 19 states that collectively maintain buffalo herds totaling more than 20,000 animals.

Some tribes, Warne said, are adding buffalo to their commodity food programs and others are considering it, “which would be wonderful.”

An emerging area of medical research, a field called epigenetics, is exploring the genetic impact of “toxic food,” Warne said. That has obvious implications, he added, for the long-term health consequences to tribes like the Lakota stemming from the loss of the buffalo.

“It potentially impacts multiple generations,” he said.

The study by Feir’s team provides a useful compilation of data that can build awareness and, ideally, guide policymakers, Warne said.

“It’s the type of baseline data,” he said, “that can lead to policy and program improvements.” Warne believes the study documents, in a convincing way, the long-lasting damage from the slaughter of the buffalo. “I think the concept is well known but it’s never been documented in this way.”

***

Mike Faith was a schoolboy when something momentous happened. The buffalo returned to Standing Rock.

The year was 1968. A truck rumbled along the back roads, stopped and unloaded six head of buffalo, surplus donated from Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

The six animals formed the start of the Standing Rock tribe’s herd, which fluctuates between 250 and 350, grazing on two pastures.

“Although it was a small number, it was a significant accomplishment getting that animal back, not only for the tribe but for all tribal nations,” he said. The Standing Rock Sioux were founding members of the InterTribal Buffalo Council, formed in 1991.

Faith, who now serves as chairman of the tribe and has managed the herd for 15 years, thinks of that historic arrival as a homecoming.

“That magnificent animal provided for the nation,” he said.

Mike Faith. Chris Flynn / The Forum
Mike Faith. Chris Flynn / The Forum

It’s important, he added, to teach the tribe’s children about the importance of the buffalo, as a source of sustenance and for its spiritual significance, including its role in religious ceremonies.

“The buffalo was at the center of a lot of that,” Faith said.

He would like to expand the tribe’s herd, a goal that will be easier to achieve with the tribe’s recent purchases of two large ranches, which will provide ample grazing land.

“I would say the buffalo’s going to play a huge part in our future,” Faith said. “Our ultimate goal is to have 1,000 animals. I think that goal will be met in the near future. The bottom line is we want to bring back the buffalo and provide healthy meat to our people.”

The near extinction of the buffalo delivered a crippling blow to Lakota culture and society, but a recovery is in progress, Faith said.

“We almost lost our identity,” he said. “The buffalo are coming back strong and so are we as a community. They were almost extinct. So were we as a people.”

In addition to buying the ranches, the tribe is seeking grants from the InterTribal Buffalo Council to provide water, corrals and fence improvements in the new pastures.

Another goal is to build a plant on the reservation to process buffalo, a facility also sought by private ranchers. That would enable the tribe to provide food for its members and to sell commercially.

“I think it’s there, waiting to be developed,” Faith said, adding that he doesn’t want to act hastily.

“It’s coming back,” Faith said of Sioux buffalo culture. “The importance of the buffalo is coming back. We may be economically strapped, but I think we’re happy people. Our people can still joke and laugh. We are survivors.”