Jason Baldes: Native American Ecology

Jason Baldes, an Eastern Shoshone who lives on the Wind River Reservation, is the Tribal Buffalo Coordinator for the Tribal Partnerships Program at the National Wildlife Federation. He works to restore bison back to homelands of indigenous tribes, like his own, as a way to reconnect and celebrate cultural ways, as well as heal from the atrocities of the past and present.

As the tribal bison coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation, Baldes is recognized nationally for his efforts in an indigenous-led movement to return buffalo — the term Native Americans prefer — to Western reservations. His work is centered on his own Wind River Reservation, which is roughly the same size, and as ecologically diverse, as nearby Yellowstone National Park.  

If you have questions about Jason’s work and would like to get involved, feel free to email Jason at BaldesJ@nwf.org.


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Jason Baldes (00:00):

People realized that human beings, we're pitiful. You know, we don't often think of ourselves that way. It's actually, most people think the opposite, that we're the king of everything. But we have stories that talk about we don't have four legs. We can't run very fast. We don't have fur like the animals. We have to have fire to keep ourselves warm. We have weak stomachs, and we don't have very sharp teeth. We can't run very fast. So we were told that we are pitiful and that we have to be respectful of all of these things that we live here with.


But the tools that man has created have given us this false sense of superiority, and that's prevalent in society. We have to find some humility again, and some connection to the land where our food and water comes from, and take care of these things as stewards, caretakers. Because we're only here for a very short time. And what we leave here for the future generations, it should be very important.

Emy diGrappa (01:00):

Hello, my name is Emmy diGrappa. Each week we bring you stories, asking our guests the question, why?. We learn about passion, purpose and the human experience. Brought to you by Wyoming Humanities, with the generous support of the Wyoming Community Foundation, this is What's Your Why>

Emy Romero (01:39):

Today we are talking to Jason Baldes. He's the Tribal Buffalo Program Manager for the National Wildlife Federation. He is from the Wind River Reservation. Welcome, Jason.

Jason Baldes (01:50):

Thank you very much.

Emy Romero (01:51):

So I know returning the bison or buffalo back to the reservation is your passion. And you say that it's restoring bison back to the homelands of Indigenous tribes. And so I want you to tell me how that became your passion and what is the purpose of restoring the bison back to the homeland of the Indigenous tribes?

Jason Baldes (02:17):

Well, for me personally, I was fortunate to have an upbringing that kept me outside a lot. My father is a retired biologist, and because of his work I was able to spend a lot of time with him in the back country on horseback. We've always been hunters and fishermen, and he's always instilled a great deal of respect for the natural world.


He and I took a trip to East Africa when I was 18, just out of high school. That trip was very influential in that it helped me appreciate my own home and community significantly more. When I was in high school, I didn't really intend to go to college. I was kind of wandering around. I was kind of mad at the world. And he took me to East Africa and we traveled around in Kenya and went to Kenya and Tanzania.


And the witness of the wildebeest was actually what triggered my interest because the wildebeest is about one and a half million animals, and today is one of the largest ungulate migrations in the world. But that's less than 5% of what the bison was here less than 200 years ago. That was incredible to me, and when I returned home, I had a new-found appreciation, or an interest, or a goal, I guess. I don't know. It was I wanted to do good, something good. And buffalo seemed the natural fit.


You know, my grandma's always told me if you're going to go to school, make sure you get the tools to come home and help your people. We hear that a lot growing up from our elders and leaders in the community, and so I've always kind of kept that in mind. And there's issues that we have here on our reservation, growing up, hunting elk and deer, and after the restoration of pronghorn antelope and bighorn sheep, being able to harvest those two species.


We always wondered how come we don't have buffalo? How come we can't hunt buffalo? And that always stuck with me. And after the witness of the wildebeest, coming home I had decided to kind of focus my academic career on what that would take. So as an undergraduate focused on a management plan, and then moving into graduate work, looking at cultural plants associated with wallows, relict wallows in particular, and how important that was to not only my own tribe to Eastern Shoshone, but the tribe that we share our reservation with, Northern Arapaho. Both of our tribes are historic buffalo people, and that buffalo is still central to our lifeways, our spirituality, our ceremonies, but has been missing for over 130 years.


With focusing on it academically, was able to find support in organizations like the National Wildlife Federation. And they continued to support my work and Shoshone tribe continued to support my work. And ultimately we were able to bring the first 10 in 2016 to the Shoshone tribe. And then in 2019, the Northern Arapaho tribe started 10. And now collectively we have over a hundred buffalo between the two tribes and continue to restore them to the landscape, to rematriate lands, to restore our cultural value and respect for the animal, to reintegrate it into our ceremonies, into our diet.


All those things are very important in our healing from atrocities, bad legislation, boarding schools, the errors of federal Indian law and policy that haven't been very favorable to tribes. We're now in an era of self- determination and buffalo restoration is an exercise of that.

Emy Romero (06:20):

That is a great journey that you're on. How difficult is it to work with the federal government to restore the buffalo to the people? And are you able to hunt buffalo on your land now?

Jason Baldes (06:33):

No. Not able to hunt Buffalo yet because we have to implement protections in our own tribal codes and regulations. And so that is a somewhat of a political process. I've mostly worked with non-profits in tribally led organizations. I work somewhat with the federal government in that we're trying to get the federal government to uphold trust responsibility that the government has because of treaty obligations and federal court, Supreme Court decisions that uphold that sovereignty of tribes.


For the most part, the federal government has done a very poor job at trust responsibility, and so in some ways it's very difficult to work with the federal government. But it is often more difficult to work with state and local governments, because those state and local governments are often working to undermine tribal sovereignty and self-determination, or outright not even recognize or support it. So relying on that federal trust responsibility becomes more important when we have a lot of challenges locally and regionally, you know, factions working against us.


And so the hope is that with new administration, more tribal members in key positions, that we can effect change from the top down to make it more favorable for our tribal buffalo restoration efforts, and tribes really to exercise that self-determination throughout our territories. You know, states don't have treaties. Counties don't have treaties. Tribes have sovereignty and the trust responsibility because of treaties. Most often they haven't been upheld, but the precedent is established.

Emy Romero (08:27):

Well, I think it's a really interesting way you put that. Trust responsibility. It is just what it says, and I like that term now that you've said it, that the federal government has to be trustworthy. Just like your state and local officials have to be trustworthy. That they make a plan with you and they carry it through, instead of it becoming political and part of partisan politics. But that they can overcome that to see what is good for the Native American people ultimately.

Jason Baldes (09:02):

It has to be a government-to-government relationship. Most entities don't have very good experience in that. And so we have to do better at making sure that those entities have some education. It's really about relationships, and so people need to come and meet with the leadership of the two tribes, develop that relationship for meaningful consultation that isn't just checking boxes. So it's more about relationships, and as that develops much more can happen.

Emy Romero (09:37):

Tell me what it was like as you were growing up on the Wind River Reservation. What was your life like? I know you said your dad had you outside a lot. But what is it like to be part of a tribal community?

Jason Baldes (09:53):

Well, I feel very fortunate in that my dad had an education and he knew very early that he wanted to get an education. He's the only one of his siblings who pursued a college degree, bachelor's and masters. So I always had a pretty solid foundation in my dad, and I know that a lot of our community members don't don't have that.


He was in a Western sense successful. But in a cultural sense, because he separated himself for school, and he went through some of the assimilative policies with language suppression and things, he didn't have a lot of the cultural values and he knew how important it was. But the era that he grew up in it was really frowned upon to be Shoshone or Arapaho, to have an accent.


My grandma, his mom, spoke Spanish and he used to get whipped in high school for having an accent or talking Spanish. And so that formulated his identity, I think, a bit and pushed him towards education which would open doors for him. He always knew he wanted to be a biologist. That was an advantage that he had, because he knew early on what he wanted to do.


On my mother's side, also Shoshone, my grandparents grew up the road from me. And so I was able to ride my horse up to my grandma and grandpa's and hear them talk the language and talk about stories. And I have lots of aunts and uncles and cousins, now nieces and nephews. And so our families are large extended families. Our cousins are our brothers and sisters. Our aunts and uncles are our other moms and dads.


The family structure is seen a little bit different than dominant society I think. We're close knit, but we're large families. You know, we have social celebrations, annual ceremonies during the seasons. Our grandmas and grandpas, prior to the reservation era, we had a large territory. Our original reservation was 44 million acres. That was before the states, but it would've been half of Wyoming, Northern Colorado, Northern Utah, and Eastern Idaho.


You look up the word nomadic and that's oftentimes the word that is used to describe the way we lived. But if you look up nomadic, it says wandering aimlessly. Well, we were not wandering aimlessly. We lived by the cycles of the seasons. The solstice, the equinox. Spring, summer, fall, winter. The seasons, and the cosmos, and the planetary movements actually dictated the foods and medicines that we would travel for.


So we lived cyclically. And with colonization and assimilation, that connection to our foods and our lands and our water was all severed. And what was brought was imposed systems, like land privatization, agriculture. The idea that things need to be domesticated. People came and plowed it up, and paved it over, and fenced it in, and fenced it out. That disconnected us from our foods, from our land, from our mother earth.


So today, since we're in an era of self-determination, we're still trying to hold onto those belief systems and values. That means decolonizing our thinking, but it also translates to decolonizing the way we use our land and to change our policies to be more holistic and represent the true values and beliefs of our people.

Emy Romero (13:47):

So I want to go back to a couple of things that you've said. One, your dad was half Mexican, half Shoshone.

Jason Baldes (13:56):


Emy Romero (13:56):

And then on your mother's side, she was full-blooded Shoshone.

Jason Baldes (14:00):


Emy Romero (14:00):

So I really can relate to your dad because I think that is kind of my parent's story. My mom's first language was Spanish, and she experienced the same thing when she was very young, going to school and being called a dirty Mexican. And so when my dad raised us, we would speak Spanglish at home, not Spanish because they didn't formally teach us Spanish because they wanted us all to go to college and have a higher education, and they didn't want us to feel the sting of discrimination. So I can relate to your dad's story. But how do you maintain your culture while at the same time you get an education?

Jason Baldes (14:46):

It's very difficult. It took me a while to find the school I was going to go to. I started out at Black Hill State University. I didn't really like that. Went to Colorado State University. Ended up getting an associate's at Front Range Community College. But I eventually ended up at Montana State University. I avoided Wyoming mostly because I didn't want to wear a cowboy as an emblem. But at Montana I found a community there, because there's seven reservations and 14 tribes in Montana.


The community there at Montana State was more favorable for me. So I eventually found a school where I found where I found community, where my beliefs and values were somewhat more valued and embraced, celebrated than those other schools. And so I settled in Bozeman at Montana State University for 10 years and pushed out my bachelor's and master's consecutively. And then moved home to work. Moved right into a career managing our tribes' buffalo, but then also working nationally on policy and legislation.


So after I was able to return home, then I was able to work on my own healing, find strength and ceremony, and begin to work on myself to be a better human being. I continue to go to ceremony weekly, and that really helps me with everything in my life. I really attribute the success of this buffalo and my own success really is grounded and based in ceremony that I had to find, that myself before I could ever do and be successful in this. So I attribute all the success really to prayer and to people that helped me through some of my hardest times

Emy Romero (16:43):

That is another one of the points you've said that now you make me want to circle back to that, because you said you were an angry young man before your dad took you to Africa, and you didn't really have a direction in your life until you did that. But what made you so angry as a young person?

Jason Baldes (17:03):

I suppose it's things like looking in the mirror and not being able to speak my language, to see the diminishment and the encroachment into our reservation, the drying up of our rivers, of course the extermination of the buffalo. Yeah. I self-medicated on alcohol for a number of years, and I had to finally come to the realization that I needed help as much as anyone. I was able to go to some spiritual leaders and ask for the help that I needed and begin to heal through ceremony. Was able to put alcohol down four years ago. I've never looked back. I continue to go to these ceremonies for strength, and help, and guidance. And that's been my foundation,. But it's all because of buffalo.


You know, the sweat lodges itself is representative of the buffalo. It has the same number of ribs as a buffalo does. It's symbolic. Our people, again we're buffalo people. So buffalo is foundational to those lodges. I don't really have a good way of describing the mystery behind that, the sacredness of how things are all interconnected and interrelated, and how things have lined up for a lot of this to work.


It's undescribable really. All I can attribute it to is really prayer, that the ancestors are helping, that grandmas and grandpas that have passed are all watching and helping from the other side. I don't know how to describe it. The help that I've been able to find in my own healing and being able to recognize those things that drove me to self-medicate were the problems that I see in the world, and that my solution or my own healing is in this buffalo. And I can only help most when I have and them walking in a good way. That I have to be genuine in my own healing so that I can even be able to attempt to help someone else. I think I bring some experience with my own addiction that I can help other people through, but it's always going to be based in this buffalo and those ceremonies.

Emy Romero (19:26):

Just describe to me. The ceremony is a sweat, and prayer.

Jason Baldes (19:31):

Sweat lodge. Yeah.

Emy Romero (19:33):

Sweat lodge and prayer, and time you spend together with others, and also just meditation?

Jason Baldes (19:41):


Emy Romero (19:42):

So in thinking about that, the ceremony and what makes you strong there, how are you taking that and passing that on to the younger generation who are experiencing drug addiction and alcoholism?

Jason Baldes (19:58):

Well, I work with both of our tribal recovery programs. The clients go through those are based in culture and language and ceremony. Both of our recovery programs have sweat lodges. But I think a lot of the healing happens for those clients when they get to come out and see the buffalo, have a connection where you make eye contact, or you're able to pick up some of their buffalo hair, or you get to hear them and smell them.


Something very special happens for our Indian people, Native people. When you get around that buffalo, because there's a connection there. It's like our missing relative. A lot doesn't need to be said when those people come and visit the buffalo, because what happens in that experience and that moment of time, it is about that person and the buffalo.


As young people come here, we've had a couple weeks ago, there were nine buses in one day of 800 kids. Tribal youth in the last two months have been out here to see these buffalo. That is the first step. And there's going to be more experiences as we begin to integrate this animal back into our diet. You know, it takes place on its own. I think I just help to create the opportunity for that kind of an experience to happen.


We've got our Shoshone tribe's buffalo here, the Arapaho buffalo. Now it's about land use change, and making the buffalo a priority on the landscape over cattle, which have been the priority up until now. And as we restore this animal to the landscape, they're going to begin to heal. They're going to ecosystem engineer the landscape, and improve and increase the plant and animal biodiversity.


They heal the land, and our population grows. Then eventually we'll have a huntable population that we can utilize for sustenance in the same way that our tribal members and community rely upon elk and deer, bighorn sheep pronghorn antelope, mule deer, whitetail deer. Our food. These are our relatives, and that relationship, that connection is being restored.


That buffalo is really the last one missing from our landscape. We've been successful in restoring all of the other ones, including the wolves and bears where we protect them also as relatives and kin in our tribal game codes.

Emy Romero (22:39):

Yeah. I really understand how the animal is part of just our complete community in the land, and without those beautiful animals, we lose so much. Even though I don't want to meet a bear face-to-face, I love seeing them. But yeah, I see that connection with people, and no matter what color you are, the beauty of seeing animals in the wild, it is a soul awakening. It is like, "Wow, we are all here together. We're all part of this life cycle."


I really like that you talk about that, because that's the beauty of Wyoming really, is these wide open spaces and not very many people, is just this tremendous landscapes we have everywhere. Who are the people that really inspired you besides your dad and your grandmother that you mentioned? Are there any people out there Native American or not that have inspired your work?

Jason Baldes (23:46):

Oh, wow. So many. I feel like I stand on the shoulders of giants. You know, I think Vine Deloria Jr. in his writing had a significant influence on me as a young academic, just because I really appreciated his intellect and perspective. You know, once the drum goes away, then our native people are no longer here. But that's not a problem. We have many drums across Indian country, and the powwow circuit is going strong.

Emy Romero (24:22):

Well, it was great to see you at the Teton powwow just recently. And thank you so much for your time. I am going to stop recording now, but I wanted just to say thank you and I hope I see you soon, in the near future.

Jason Baldes (24:39):

Thank you very much.

Emy diGrappa (24:53):

Thank you for joining us for this episode of What's Your Why?, brought to you by Wyoming Humanities with support from Wyoming Community Foundation and generous supporters like you. To learn more, go to thinkwy.org, subscribe and never miss a show.