GOLDEN, Colorado (AP) — Dozens of bison from a mountain park outside of Denver were handed over Wednesday to several tribes from across the Great Plains in the latest example of Native Americans regaining control of the animals their ancestors have lived side by side for millennia.
After ceremonial drumming and singing, and acknowledging the tribes that once inhabited the surrounding landscape, the bison were loaded into trucks to be relocated to tribal lands.
About half a dozen Colorado animals will form the core of a new herd for the Yuchi people south of Tulsa, Oklahoma, said Richard Grounds of the Yuchi Language Project.
Over time, the herd will grow, Grounds says, to restore the spiritual and physical bond that was cut two centuries ago when bison were all but wiped out and the Yuchi were expelled from their homeland.
He compared the return of the hefty animals to the revival of the Yuchi language and said that both the tongue and the aurochs are inseparable from the earth. According to him, the bison were the “original caretakers” of this land.
“We lost that connection to the buffalo, that physical connection, as part of the colonial assault,” Grounds said. “So we say that we Yuchi people are still here and the buffalo are still here, and it is important to reconnect and restore this relationship with the land, with animals and plants.”
The donation also included 17 bison to the northern Arapaho and 12 eastern Shoshone — both from Wyoming — and one animal to the multi-tribal High Bull Memorial Council, city officials said.
Wednesday’s move comes two weeks after U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland issued a bison conservation order intended to further increase the number of large herds on Native American lands. Haaland also announced $25 million to help establish new herds, transfer more bison from federal lands to tribal lands, and enter into new bison management agreements with tribes, officials said.
The American bison, also known as bison, recovered from near extinction in the 1880s but is still missing from most of the pastures they once occupied.
In the US, 82 tribes now have over 20,000 bison, and the number of herds on tribal lands has increased in recent years. Animals have been transferred to reservations from other tribes, federal, state, and local governments, and private ranches.
Tens of millions of bison once roamed North America until they were nearly wiped out by white settlers, commercial hunters and US troops. Their demise devastated Indian tribes across the continent, who relied on bison and their parts for food, clothing, and shelter.
The animals given to the Wednesday tribes come from the last remnants of large herds. They were cared for by the Denver Zoo and kept in a city park before being moved to the foothills west of Denver in 1914.
Surplus animals from the city’s herd have been auctioned off for years, but in recent years, the city has begun donating them to tribes instead, said Scott Gilmour, deputy executive director of Denver Parks and Recreation.
Gilmour said the land recognition statement, read aloud during Wednesday’s ceremony, highlighted the area’s historic significance to the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Ute and dozens of other tribes that once lived in the area. But he added that they were just “words on a piece of paper.”
“What we are doing is putting these words into action for indigenous peoples. Buffaloes are part of the earth, they are part of their family,” Gilmour said. “They take their family members back to their ancestral home.”
To date, 85 bison from Denver have been donated to tribes and tribal organizations. City officials have said deliveries will continue until 2030.
MATTHEW BROWN and THOMAS PAPERT Associated Press. Brown reported from Billings, Montana.