Bison Research for the Native American Community

Melinda Martin, Director of Agriculture and Bison Education, 
Little Hoop Community College, Fort Totten, ND and
Judi Wood, Northern Plains Bison Education Network Coordinator, 
Lower Brule Community College, Lower Brule, SD and
Inter Tribal Bison Cooperative, Rapid City, SD

The American bison and the Native American Indians lived together in harmony for many years on the Great Plains before European pioneers and the railroad started to move west.  The Plains Indians were almost totally dependent upon the bison.  They were a source of food, shelter, utensils, and clothing and most importantly spiritual strength.  The American bison sacrificed its life to keep the American Indian in existence. The bison made the people strong because of the spiritual and emotional connection they had with the bison.  The Indians watched the herds and gained an understanding of their ways and learned from them.  When the bison and Native Americans started to be an obstacle to the westward expansion, the United States government decided both had to be controlled and removed.   What was almost the end of the bison was also almost the end of the Native Americans.

Today, both the Native Americans and the American bison are seeing an increase in their numbers and are coming back.  Again, bison are serving as a source of healthy food and spiritual strength.  The bison can provide spiritual/cultural revitalization, ecological restoration, education, and economic development. 

Two major organizations have been developed to assist in this bison restoration project.  The Intertribal Bison Cooperative (ITBC) based in Rapid City, SD consists of 48 tribes in 16 states.  The mission of the ITBC is to restore bison Indian Nations in a manner that is compatible with their spiritual and cultural beliefs and practices. The ITBC was formed to coordinate and assist tribes in returning the buffalo to Indian country. The role of the ITBC, as established by its membership, is to act as a facilitator in coordinating education and training programs, developing marketing strategies, coordinating the transfer of surplus buffalo from national parks to tribal lands, and providing technical assistance to its membership in developing sound management plans that will help each tribal herd become a successful and self-sufficient operation.

The Northern Plains Bison Education Network (NPBEN) is a regional network of 10 Tribal Colleges collaborating on agricultural and natural resource program development, information infrastructures, technology capacity building, and instructional delivery through telecommunications.  The primary focus of the NPBEN is to replenish buffalo herds and to develop culturally based formal and non-formal education opportunities that support the concurrent development of Tribal land and human resources in rural communities of Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota. 

In 1994 Congress passed legislation designating all Tribal colleges as Land Grant institutions. This created many opportunities for the Tribal colleges  that were previously less accessible due to lack of resources.  Gaining the status of Land Grant institutions has sparked a desire in the tribal colleges to venture further into the world of research.  Without research to investigate the dynamics of the bison and their environment, the nature of the animals or the interaction of the bison with the world around them cannot be fully understood.  Knowledge such as this can directly impact the well being of the Native Americans who have relied upon the bison for life sustainment yesterday, today and tomorrow.  

Tribal colleges are not interested in collaboration on research in an unnatural setting such as feedlots or in settings that put the animals in an unbalanced condition.  The 1994 Land Grant institutions are interested in research that investigates the philosophy of bison production in a natural, ecological and holistic manner. 

The following is a list of some of the tribal college research priorities:

        Diseases that affect bison and their immune system

          Nutritional requirements of bison

          The genetic impact that man has had on bison since captivity

          Studies on economic impact of bison on Native people

          Studies on the traditional method of preserving and storing bison meats and by-products

          The best way to convert marginal farmland to grassland

          Is grass-fed bison meat more nutritious in terms of minerals, vitamins cholesterol, protein, etc than grain-fed bison?

          Is weaning calves beneficial to the bison cows in terms of gestation, cycling and overall health? 

          The relationship of bison to native birds, insects, and other wildlife in terms of a functional ecosystem

          Guidelines for tribal meat inspection and training inspectors to meet tribal, USDA, and the common market standards

          Using bison in CRP acreage and the impact they have on the acreages

These are just some of the areas that the tribal colleges want to study and research in the near future.   There are many more, but finding answers to these questions could make a significant impact on the lives of the bison and Native American people.  The tribal collegesí investigation will help bring back the American bison to be a symbol of strength and freedom that it once was and always should be.


NDSU Vice President,
Dean and Director for Agricultural Affairs
NDSU Extension Service ND Agricultural
Experiment Station
NDSU College of Agriculture NDSU College of Human Development and Education