The Role of Buffalo in Native American Cultural Revitalization with Jason Baldes

"The buffalo is still central to our lifeways, our spirituality, our ceremonies, but has been missing for over 130 years. Bringing them back is integral to our healing from atrocities and the restoration of our cultural value." - Jason Baldes

Jason Baldes, an Eastern Shoshone and member of the Inter Tribal Buffalo Council, joins us on this episode of What's Your Why? to discuss his work in restoring buffalo to tribal lands. With a background in biology and a deep respect for the natural world, Jason has dedicated himself to bringing buffalo back to the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. Through his academic studies and collaborations with organizations like the National Wildlife Federation, Jason has been instrumental in reintroducing buffalo to the reservation, starting with a small herd in 2016. His efforts aim to revive the cultural and spiritual significance of buffalo for Native American communities, fostering healing and revitalization. Join us as we explore the sacred connection between Native people and buffalo, and learn about the ongoing challenges and successes of buffalo restoration. Get ready for an informative conversation with our guest, Jason Baldes.

Experience the profound connection between Native people and the buffalo in this inspiring new film by Ken Burns. Watch The American Buffalo: A Story of Resilience now to discover the untold story of the sacred bond between Native people and the buffalo.

The key moments in this episode are:
00:00:01 - Introduction
00:01:37 - Personal Passion for Bison Restoration
00:05:43 - Challenges with Government and Self-Determination
00:07:41 - Government's Trust Responsibility
00:09:30 - Growing Up in a Tribal Community
00:17:24 - The Sacredness of Buffalo
00:18:28 - Passing on Healing Through Buffalo
00:20:02 - Restoring Buffalo and Healing the Land
00:21:37 - Restoring Connection with Animals
00:23:07 - Influential Figures and the Indigenous Drum

  • Watch the film The American Buffalo: A Story of Resilience by renowned filmmaker Ken Burns to learn about the journey of restoring buffalo to tribal lands. 
  • Stay informed about the progress of buffalo restoration on the Wind River Indian reservation in central Wyoming by following the work of Jason Baldes and the Intertribal Buffalo Council. 
  •  Educate yourself about the history and importance of bison to indigenous tribes by reading books or articles on the subject. 
  • Visit the Wind River Indian reservation in central Wyoming to learn more about the cultural significance of buffalo to the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes. 
  • Engage in meaningful consultation with tribal leaders and organizations to develop relationships and understand the needs and goals of indigenous communities. 
  • Celebrate Native American Heritage Month!


More ways to connect:

Listen on all your favorite platforms and subscribe!

As always leave a review if you enjoyed these stories and follow us on Instagram or visit the webpage of the Wyoming Humanities!

Sign up for the podcast newsletter using the QR code of follow this link:

Qr code Podcast newsletter sign up


What's your why is brought to you by Wyoming humanities. Our mission in this podcast is to inspire, engage and inform, bringing you relevant and timely topics about our shared human experience. And our special guest is Jason Baldes, an Eastern Shoshone and a member of the Inter Tribal Buffalo Council who is working to bring Buffalo back onto tribal lands to roam freely, starting with a small herd on the Wind River Indian reservation in central Wyoming. But that's not all. So there's a new film out by renowned filmmaker Ken Burns called the American Buffalo, a story of Resilience, and follow him along as he works with tribal members such as Jason Baldes.         


The American Buffalo film is a two. Part, four hour series that takes viewers. On a journey through more than 10,000 years of North American history and across some of the continent's most iconic landscapes. So we want to welcome our special guest. Jason, thanks for joining us.         


Welcome, Jason. Thank you very much. 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 homelands of the indigenous tribes?         


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 backcountry on horseback. And 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 many 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 was I wanted to do good, something good. And Buffalo seemed the natural 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. And 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 Wyoming Humanities 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 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, relic wallows in particular, and how important that was to not only my own tribe, the Eastern Shoshone, but the tribe that we share our reservation with, the 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 Shoshoni tribe continued to support my work. And ultimately, we were able to bring the first ten in 2016 to the Sushoni tribe. And then in 2019, the Northern Arapho tribe started ten. And now collectively, we have over 100 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 eras 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. 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? No, we're not able to hunt buffalo. Yet because we have to implement protections in our own tribal codes and regulations. And so that is somewhat of a political process.         


Working. I've mostly worked with nonprofits and 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's 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. Comes more important when we have a. Lot of challenges locally and regionally, factions working against us. And so the hope is that with new administration, more tribal members in key.         


Positions, that we can affect 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. 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. Well, I think it's a really interesting way you put that trust responsibility, and 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, 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. And 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.         


Tell me what it was like as you were growing up on the Wind river reservation. What was your life like? And I know you said your dad had you outside a lot, but what is it like to be part of a tribal community? 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 master's.         


And so I always had a pretty solid foundation in my dad, and I know that a lot of our community members 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 a Rappaho, 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, and that was an advantage that he had because he knew early on what he wanted to do. On my mother's side, also Shoshoni, my grandparents grew up the road from me, and so I was able to ride my horse up to my grandma and grandpas and hear them talk to language. And talk about stories. And I have lots of aunts and uncles and cousins now, nieces and nephews. 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, and 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 have 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 live. But if you look up nomadic, it says wandering aimlessly. 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.         


What was the idea that Things need to be domesticated? That 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 on to 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. So I want to go back to a couple of things that you've said. One, your dad was half Mexican, half Shoshone, and then on your mother's side, she was full blooded Shoshone. Yeah.         


So I really can relate to your dad because I think that that is kind of my parents 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? It's very difficult.         


It took me a while to find. A 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 associates at Front Range Community College.         


But I eventually ended up at Montana State University. And 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. So the community there at Montana State.         


Was more favorable for me. And so I eventually found a school 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, in Bozeman at Montana State University for ten years. And pushed out my bachelor's and master's. Consecutively and then moved home to work, move 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 in. Ceremony, and begin to work on myself. To be a better human being.         


And 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.         


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? 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. And I was able to go to some spiritual leaders and ask for the help that I needed. And began 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. And the sweat lodge itself is representative of the buffalo. It has the same number of ribs as a buffalo does.         


And it's symbolic. And 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. And 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 end 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 just describe to me the ceremony is a sweat and prayer.         


Sweat lodge. Yeah, sweat lodge and prayer and time you spend together with others and also just meditation. So in thinking about 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? Well, I work with both of our tribal recovery programs. The clients that 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 they get around. That buffalo, because there's a connection there. It's like our missing relative. And a lot doesn't need to be.         


Said when those people come and visit. The buffalo, because what happens in that. Experience, in that moment of time, it is about that person and the buffalo. And as young people come here, we've had, a couple of weeks ago, there. Were nine buses in one day, 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. It takes place on its own.         


I think I've just helped to create the opportunity for that kind of an experience to happen. And we've got our Shoshone tribes buffalo here, the Arapaho buffalo. Now it's about land use, change, and making 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, then our population. Grows, and 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, achorn sheep, Wyoming Humanities, mule. Deer, whitetail deer, our food, these are our relatives.         


And that relationship, that connection is being restored. And 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. 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. And 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 whether, 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 are 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? Oh, wow, so many.         


I feel like I stand on the shoulders of know. I think Vine DeLorea Jr. In his writing had a significant influence on me as a young academic just because I really appreciated his intellect and perspective. Once the drum goes away, then the. Native people are no longer here.         


But that's not a problem. We have many drums across Indian country and our circuit is going strong. Well, it was great to see you at the Teton Powau 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. Thank you very much.         


Thank you for joining us for this episode of what's your why brought to you by Wyoming humanities with support from Wyoming Humanities foundation and generous supporters like you. To learn more, go to subscribe and never miss a show.