History was made in Banff last week when the Buffalo Treaty returned to the national park to mark two years since it was first signed.
To mark the occasion, members of more than 20 First Nations were present and participated in ceremonies involved in celebrating the treaty and adding new signatures to it.
The treaty anniversary (first signed in 2014) was organized in conjunction with the annual American Bison Society conference, which was held last week in Banff and for the first time in the organization’s existence, outside the United States.
Organizer Marie-Eve Marchand with Banff-based Bison Belong remarked on the historically significant occasion during a talk at the Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum on Thursday (Sept. 29) organized by the Iiniistsi Treaty Arts Society as a REDx Talks event.
Plains bison once numbered from 25-70 million animals throughout North America before Europeans arrived and a mass extermination occurred. At one point, said Marchand, there were only 86 wild, genetically pure plains bison left in existence and in the early 20th century their conservation story is closely connected to the history of Banff National Park.
“Banff was created just after mass extinction of the bison,” she said. “This is the biggest mass extinction we have done to a species and it happened in a complex way; there wasn’t just one reason only.”
While Banff National Park was created after bison were hunted almost entirely to extinction, it was superintendent Howard Douglas and local newspaper publisher Norman Luxton who are credited with convincing the Canadian government at the turn of the century to purchase the last herd of wild bison from a Montana rancher.
Having played a critical part in conservation of the species with that purchase, the story comes full circle with the fact the plains bison to be re-introduced by Parks Canada to the Panther River Valley early in 2017 are descendants of that herd.
“They are all descendants from the animals saved by those who took action and made a difference,” Marchand said.
Taking action to bring bison back to Banff has been at the core of Bison Belong since it was founded several years ago. But Marchand said to actually restore plains bison to the landscape there needs to be a shift in our thinking of these animals as wildlife rather than domesticated livestock.
She said plains bison in Alberta are not considered wildlife under legislation currently enacted in the province. British Columbia and Saskatchewan both recognize the animal as wildlife, and Marchand said the gathering of First Nations for the signing of the Buffalo Treaty also passed a resolution calling on Premier Rachel Notley to change that situation.
“Bison are not considered wildlife in Alberta, they are not equal to the wolf, the grizzly bear, the elk or the eagle – they can only be owned or managed – why?” Marchand asked those gathered for the Buffalo Treaty event.
It is a reality that has resulted in the need for fencing in the backcountry location where bison are to be reintroduced, added Marchand, because if the animals cross the national park boundary into provincial territory there is nothing to protect them.
“We need Alberta to recognize the bison as wildlife, not just lifestock,” she said. “We need to take the fences down and the Alberta government needs to take the fences down in its head.”
Along with the historical importance and context of bison returning to Banff – the reintroduction plans by Parks Canada also have cultural and ecological significance as well.
Leeroy Little Bear, speaking on Sunday (Oct. 2) at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, spoke about the cultural importance of the Buffalo Treaty to Indigenous people in Western Canada.
Little Bear was involved in the official signing of the treaty in Banff and on the one year anniversary, when it was signed by Stoney Nakoda Wesley Band Chief Ernest Wesley, Chief Kurt Buffalo of the Samson Cree and Chief Aaron Young of the Stoney Nakoda Chiniki Band.
He said the treaty is one of cooperation, renewal and restoration, but it is also about culturally recognizing the bison as an animal closely tied to Indigenous cultures.
Little Bear said First Nations that gathered in Banff for the American Bison Society conference last week and the ceremonies involved with the anniversary of the Buffalo Treaty were there to share the stories of the buffalo before they are welcomed back into the wild, like long lost relatives who are coming home to stay.
“All we are, are the stories we tell,” he said. “This past week, Indigenous peoples were brought to Banff as part of the American Bison Society and part of the second anniversary of the Buffalo Treaty. Those two meetings went hand in hand,” he said.
“The Buffalo Treaty … is the culmination of about six to seven years of buffalo stories being told by our elders and the long and short of it was that our elders were saying the buffalo is out of sight and out of mind.
“But then our culture is so closely tied to that animal. Our sacred ceremonies, our stories, our songs revolve around the buffalo, but our children don’t see buffalo on a daily basis and consequently they can’t make that connection, so the dream was let’s bring the buffalo back.”
Stories about buffalo, said Little Bear, are stories about relationships. For the First Nations of North America, their relationship with the landscape and environment is one of interconnectedness and being in harmony with nature.
Those values ring true with conservation efforts that recognize the interconnectedness of living things on the landscape and, as a keystone species, plains bison represent that perfectly.
Ecologist and expert Wes Olsen said bison as a keystone species have a dramatic effect on the environment in which they live. From their hair, snot and dung patties to their behaviour on the landscape, plains bison play a major part in the ecosystem they are part of.
Snot, for example, according to Olsen, in a bison contains a whole host of microbes they have inhaled while grazing on the grasslands and then they spread those particles elsewhere. Bison dung, he said, can support an incredible diversity of insect life within a single patty and bison hair has been shown to increase the survival rate of bird eggs when used by different species of winged creatures to insulate their nest.
“An ecosystem with bison in it is incredibly completed,” Olsen said. “It is full of insect societies and amphibian societies, for example, all of which are interrelated. It is going to be a real treat to see them back on the landscape.”
The landscape chosen for bison reintroduction in Banff, the Panther Valley, was also the location of an important Indigenous ceremony last week to welcome the species back.
Little Bear said ceremonial tobacco used in the ceremonies was taken to the valley and spread as a messenger to the species in that location that soon the plains bison will return to that landscape.
“The offering of the tobacco that was prayed with at the ceremonies was being used to send the message out to those other spirits, to those other relatives, to prepare themselves for the coming of the bison, the coming of the buffalo,” Little Bear said.