Bringing back bison: Herd could mean food sovereignty is on the horizon for Red Lake Nation
Ten miles north of Gonvick is an area now home to a starter herd of 11 "mashkode-bizhikiwag," or bison in Ojibwemowin -- which are part of a multifaceted food sovereignty initiative Red Lake Nation.
RED LAKE NATION -- Ten miles north of Gonvick, Minn., Cherilyn Spears looked around at a space that had been mere grassland two years ago.
"This is called the Red Lake Buffalo Ranch," she said, on a windy, hot day at the end of June.
The area is now home to a starter herd of 11 "mashkode-bizhikiwag," or bison in Ojibwemowin -- which are part of a multifaceted food sovereignty initiative Red Lake Nation.
Currently, these bison roam in 86 acres of pasture, but one day, project leaders hope this will be thousands. As the bison herd grows, the animals will be able to serve as food, a source of education, a part of cultural ceremonies or maybe even protein bars.
Spears, who serves as a project coordinator for the Red Lake Economic Development and Planning Department, oversees the ranch, along with Buffalo Farm Manager Fred Auginash.
She hopes the ranch will function as a cog in the larger food sovereignty movement underway in Red Lake with a goal of cascading cultural, economic and health benefits for the band and its members.
As Spears tells it, the idea for a buffalo farm sparked back in 2014 after the election of Darrell Seki Sr. as the Red Lake Chairman. He made the rounds of the different Red Lake Nation districts, holding community meetings to find out what band members were hoping to change in the future.
One topic that just kept coming up was food.
“He asked the people what they would like to see happen and pretty much every district said 'Why can't we have locally grown foods available to us? Why is everything shifting when we've got all this land?’ And someone spoke up and said, "Why can't we have buffalo?"
This got the ball rolling.
“I started looking into it,” Spears said. “It pretty much started out with the community requesting locally grown vegetables and buffalo be available.”
Soon after, Spears talked with a friend who works in Indigenous foods.
“My friends own Native American Natural Foods out of Pine Ridge. We were talking, and they said, 'Well, if the tribe ever wants to start a tribal business, have them start a buffalo farm, we'll buy up all your buffalo,’” she said.
The company uses the buffalo meat to make "Tanka" bars -- which means "large" or "great" in Lakota -- cranberry and buffalo bars, turkey and buffalo jerky and other health-conscious offerings.
The bars are high in protein, and in high demand.
“The Seattle football team ordered a bunch of them from him. After the players would practice and play games, they'd eat a Tanka bar because there's so much protein,” Spears explained. “We want to make a wild rice one.”
In 2019, Red Lake received six “seed” buffalo from Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota.
A memorandum of understanding between Red Lake Nation and Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota provides Red Lake with disease-free, genetically pure bison. Red Lake Nation is one of 70 tribal nations that belong to the Intertribal Buffalo Council, which has restored more than 20,000 bison to tribal lands.
In 2020, a fence was installed around an 80-acre pasture for the herd of one bull, five cows and one calf. In the time since then, four more calves were born, making it a total of 11 buffalo on the farm.
“Every two years, we can get as many buffalo as we want. We're going to fence in 200 more acres this summer. And then in the fall, we'll take in about 10 to 15 more (bison),” Spears said.
Aside from some slight snafus -- like losing a calf for a few months -- the operation has been trodding along according to plan.
A lost buffalo returns
Though the ranchers didn’t plan to name the buffalo, some of the bison have found themselves with various monikers -- “Renegade,” “Lady Gaga,” “Jumbo,” “Buffy.”
“We're not supposed to name them, but Fred gave them a couple of names,” Spears said. “(Fred) sent me a picture and I said, 'Oh, is that Renegade?' He said, ‘No, that's Buffy.’ Buffy the Buffalo. Then he sent me another picture today and said, 'I don't know, it's either Bull or Lady Gaga.’”
One of the herd is a bit more famous than the others -- and it’s not Lady Gaga. One calf earned the name Renegade after escaping, eluding capture for months, and eventually returning on his own.
His triumphant return earned him a mention in the Red Lake State of the Band Address back in May.
“We got one that ran away. Renegade, Renegade. Poor baby,” Spears said.
The story of Renegade’s departure and eventual return was dramatically retold by both Spears and Auginash.
Last year, Red Lake received two calves from Wind Cave, a few months after the initial group of six. One had died in transport, and the crew was trying to shoo the other calf away from the dead one and into the pasture.
“We had to shoo the calf that way so they left the other buffalo,” she said. “We had the (electric) fence off. So when we shooed him that way, he must have gotten out of the fence. Then it starts thundering and lightning, raining and blowing trees," she said. “It knocked out the power.”
“They say (the bison) try to go back to where they came from. We didn't know ‘til the next morning. They said 'calf's not here.' I said, ‘What?!” Spears recalled. “He was only... March, April, May, June, July, August, September... He was only seven months old when he took off, but he was big.”
Renegade eluded the ranch staff for a while, but passersby saw him occasionally roaming in fields.
“There were sightings of him over by Berner. We heard that people would be going by and saying, 'Is that a buffalo?'” Spears said. “He was over in Berner eating. I thought he was eating the horseradish, and I was like, 'He likes horseradish?' but here they had a winter crop of wheat growing in there, I didn't know that, and that's what he was eating.”
After failed attempts to wrangle him, Spears hired Auginash, and a few others, to get it done.
“She hired me to catch him and we went way that way, looking down all them roads that way where we last seen him. We finally located him with the binoculars, way out in this one field, way out there, and we were trying to figure out how to catch him. They hired this other guy too, he come out walking out there with a rope. He come walking back and I said, 'What?' he said, ‘He took off like a wild deer.’ He thought he was gonna put that rope around him and bring him in," Auginash said with a big laugh.
The tango between the buffalo wranglers and Renegade played out for weeks. Sometimes they would go long spans of time without spotting him, and then a chase would take place.
“Me and Cherilyn were following and he was running right along the road. We were driving I said, 'Hey, you get back to the farm.' He blazed through this farmer's field and right through a fence,” he said.
Auginash recalled one day in the fall, after Renegade had been spotted in a field near a deer stand, there were talks of killing him. People were worried as deer season approached that he would get caught in the crossfire anyway.
“It was almost dark. They wanted us to shoot him, because it was the day before hunting season. They thought he was gonna get shot, right the next day,” he said.
Auginash approached the buffalo, standing out in a field as darkness fell.
“I walked out there halfway and I said, 'Hey, they want us to harvest you tomorrow.’ I said, ‘We'll give you one more day. Cherilyn and her son are going to open that gate. You better go over there because you're gonna get shot tomorrow.’ The next day, I come look for him over there. He wasn't over there, I come driving over here, and there are tracks going right in the gate. I closed that gate right away. I went in there and he was standing on this side and all them other ones are standing on the other side looking at him.”
Renegade was home.
Caring for thousand-pound critters
Though bison and buffalo are both used interchangeably in North America, bison is the correct scientific name. American bison are covered in shaggy brown fur and can weigh from around 880 to 2,800 pounds. The massive mammals are nomadic grazers that travel in herds. According to the Red Lake staff, they are generally mellow, but not particularly friendly.
Caring for the buffalo has been a learning experience for all involved. The idea is to keep the Red Lake bison as wild as can be, so the care of the herd is pretty hands-off. The herd will stay in their fenced-in area as long as they have access to water. Auginash makes sure water is filled, and in the winter, food and shelter are also available.
“We try to stay hands-off, we just make sure they're fed and they have water so they'll stay. We have supplemental food for them -- hay for winter. Otherwise, they'll just keep eating on the grass,” Spears said.
According to the U.S. National Park Service, bison typically live for 10-20 years, but some live longer. Cows begin breeding at 2 years old and only have one baby at a time. For males, the prime breeding age is 6-10 years. Bison calves are usually born between late March and May and are orange-ish red. In a few months, their hair turns dark brown and their characteristic shoulder hump and horns appear.
Auginash recalled discovering the first bison calf born to the herd.
“I saw that brown thing and I thought it was -- what do you call that -- a mountain lion. ‘Oh! That's a baby buffalo -- our first one," he said with a laugh.
Spears recalled with excitement the birth of the first calves.
“Oh gosh, it was really exciting. It was awesome, just totally awesome. We just didn't know what to expect because we've never taken care of buffalo before,” Spears said. “First, there was one, and then we rode by and I was like, 'There's another one. We have two!' Then pretty soon, (Fred) sent a picture of the third. They must be going in there to have them -- in the woods. I don't know if they fixed up a little spot in there.
All of the other bison have come from South Dakota. The herd at Wind Cave National Park, where the Red Lake buffalo came from, is unique. As one of the few bison herds that is genetically pure -- not bred with cattle -- the herd has helped start other herds all over the continent.
Auginash rattled off his daily tasks involved in the care and keeping of ungulates.
“Check their water. And make sure that water pump's working, turn on the water. In the winter, make sure it ain't froze up. In the winter, we got to clean their pen there. Check the fences,” he said.
“He checks for wolves because the babies were just born. One day, we came here early, and we saw like three sets of bear tracks and it looks like one of the bears was walking along the road and came up to the electric fence and then just walked back away,” added Danielle Hernandez, agriculture assistant.
Bison on the market
Spears said the No. 1 priority for the bison herd is to eventually feed people locally in Red Lake. The nation has been pursuing a goal of food sovereignty for the past few years. The notion of food sovereignty refers to a system in which the people who grow, distribute, and consume food control the policies and mechanisms of food production and distribution. Specifically in Red Lake, there are goals to be self-reliant, not needing to drive to Bemidji or elsewhere for fresh food.
The buffalo ranch could make it easier for band members to get ahold of healthier and more traditional fare. A customary Ojibwe diet is mostly foods like fish, wild rice, corn, potatoes -- and bison.
But reinforcing or reintroducing traditional Indigenous practices is one of several benefits the ranchers anticipate. Beyond that, the herd can serve as a learning and tourism hub, an economic benefit and business opportunity.
“They're working on a business plan right now. Before we even thought about really seriously doing this, we had to make sure we have a buyer,” Spears said. Right now, plans are to sell the meat both locally and to the Native American Natural Foods out of the Pine Ridge Reservation, an Oglala Lakota community in South Dakota.
The buffalo aren’t ready to harvest yet -- the tribe wants to ensure a sustainable herd, so it will need to grow larger before selling bison is on the table.
“When we get to that point, we'll have a buyer,” Spears said. “We'd (also) like to introduce it into the schools and substitute buffalo for beef when they cook.”
“We are looking forward to the first harvest,” Seki said of the bison during the Red Lake State of the Band Address back in May.
“We're just in the first two years, it'll be all about training and learning about them and just letting them be, and then in a couple years or so we'll get serious about bigger herds and being able to sell them,” Spears said. “Everybody's asking, when?”