Can Native and Western Wildlife Managers Find Common Ground?

Feb 15th, 1996 | By | Category: 7-4: Wildlife Management, Editor's Essay
By Marjane Ambler

Yellowstone National Park Game Warden C.J. "Buffalo" Jones overseeing the feeding of two bison calves by a domestic milk cow in the early 1900s. Photo courtesy of Yellowstone National Park.

When European-American explorers first ventured into the West, they found the plains black with bison–the American buffalo. By 1873, the plains were filled instead with a sickening stench as hundreds of bison carcasses lay rotting. From an estimated 60 million bison, the population plummeted to less than 100 individuals as trophy hunters and train passengers took their toll. Gen. Phil Sheridan endorsed the slaughter, referring to the buffalo as the Indians’ commissary, the enemy’s supply train. Although the native beasts had been hunted for thousands of years by the native people, overnight the bison nearly became extinct.

This story has often been used to symbolize the different approach to wildlife by indigenous peoples. Because of such historical facts, American Indians have been called the first environmentalists. The full story is both continuing and more complex. This conflict of the 1800s cannot be relegated to museum displays and history books. As the articles in this issue of Tribal College Journal illustrate, many American Indian people continue to view wildlife differently than mainstream people.

The conflicts also continue into the present day. In the Northwest, state and federal wildlife officials raise salmon in hatcheries and barge them around hydroelectric dams while the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission insists that the way to save the endangered fish is to put them back in the rivers and protect the rivers. In the Northern Rockies, local residents object to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ proposal to take over management of the National Bison Range and to the Nez Perce Tribe’s involvement in managing wolves. Europeans threaten to boycott furs, endangering the subsistence lifestyle of Natives in the Far North. In Minnesota, Native scientists at the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe Research Laboratory first raised the alarm about the dangerous mercury levels in fish that their people rely upon for subsistence. In the South Pacific, scientists deeply offended the Maori by taking blood samples and then patenting their genes.

While they involve jurisdictional and civil rights issues, these battles are rooted in culture. They involve different ways of viewing the world, different ways of life, and different belief systems, making them much more difficult to resolve.

The late William Tall Bull brought that home in a talk he presented in Yellowstone National Park in 1993. Tall Bull, an instructor on oral traditions and ethno-botany at Dull Knife Memorial College, was often called upon as a spokesman for the Northern Cheyenne. He told the audience of 500 people about a trip into the Tongue River Valley with a young biologist, who was helping to write an environmental impact statement. During their visit, Tall Bull saw a wolf. If the biologist had seen the wolf, he would have confirmed the endangered species, posing a substantial obstacle to the proposed railroad. But the scientist could not see what Tall Bull saw. Wolves had not been transplanted into southern Montana at that time, and the wolf Tall Bull saw was different. The wolf that Tall Bull saw emerged from a rock, walking through it. After describing his experience, Tall Bull told the Yellowstone audience that he appreciated the work of environmentalists to protect the physical environment. “But no one speaks for the spiritual environment,” he said. “Let us work together to save Mother Earth,” he said. “Go talk to the plants. Spend some time thinking about your spiritual selves.”

Thousands of miles to the North, John-Pierre Ashini tells young hunters a similar message. Caribou are as integral to Innu life as the buffalo were to the Native peoples of the Plains. He learned zoology and meteorology from his father and his grandfather. The old hunters learned from the animals themselves, sometimes through dreams and sometimes, not so long ago, through the mystery of shaking tents. Ashini’s mother observed a shaking tent when she was 8 or 9 years old. Everyone in camp gathered to watch as the old hunter went into a small tent. Suddenly there was a very loud noise like a wind blowing the tent back and forth, she told Ashini. Then there were animal sounds–fish, toads, caribou, and marten. It was scary for the child watching, but for the old hunter, the spirit translated the animal voices into Innu.

The articles about the Innu in this issue demonstrate that the people do not relegate their hunting regulations to the wildlife department to enforce. Instead, the culture’s principles for stewardship are built into the literature and the religion. When Innu hunters try to talk to the Canadian wildlife biologists about the animals dying, they’re dismissed. When they try to talk to animal rights groups, they’re considered heartless butchers. As an American Indian scientist, Judy Gobert would understand their frustration. As she explains in the article by Michael Hill in this issue, Western scientists sometimes make even the best credentialed Indian scientists feel unwelcome. Instead, she says, they could learn from some of the basic tenets of the Indian approach.

The InterTribal Bison Cooperative has found some allies amongst non-Indian ranchers for its reluctance to tinker with bison genes–genes that the bison developed generations before cattle arrived on this continent. Yellowstone National Park learned the hard way the hazards of genetic tinkering. Yellowstone’s role in saving the bison has been well publicized, but Indian ranchers’ contributions to that effort have been neglected. Yellowstone was established in 1872, partially to protect the bison. Poachers were decimating the herds there, and by the turn of the century, less than 50 survived, according to historian Paul Schullery of Yellowstone. Thus in 1902, Yellowstone purchased three from the Charles Goodnight herd in Texas and 18 from the Allard herd in Montana.

A man named Hawk Blanket first approached tribal officials on the Flathead Reservation in about 1853 and asked permission to bring bison back, according to oral history research by the Flathead Culture Committee. They refused, saying their traditions depended upon free roaming herds. By the 1870s, however, it was clear that the free roaming buffalo culture was no more. Therefore, his son, Little Hawk Blanket succeeded in bringing a few orphaned bison calves back from the Great Plains and started making the switch from tracking wild herds to animal husbandry. The offspring of those animals formed the nucleus of the herd managed by Charles Allard and Michel Pablo. Allard died in 1896. When Congress opened the Flathead Reservation to white settlement, Pablo could not keep the acreage to sustain his herd. Allard’s heirs and Pablo sold bison to Yellowstone and Canada. An estimated 80 percent of all American bison descended from the Allard-Pablo herd, according to historian John Kidder.

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