Ryan Mackey softly sang a sacred Cherokee verse as he took a handful of tobacco from a resealable bag. Reaching his arms over a barbed-wire fence, he spread the leaves on the grass where a herd of bison grazed in northeast Oklahoma.
The offering represented a respectful act of thanks, the 45-year-old explained, and a desire to forge a divine connection with animals, their ancestors and the Creator.
“When tobacco is used the right way, it’s almost like you make a contract with the spirit, the spirit of our Creator, the spirit of these bison,” Mackey said as a strong wind blew across the grassy field. “They say that everything has a spiritual aspect. Just like this wind, we can feel it in our hands, but we cannot see it.
Decades after the last buffalo disappeared from their lands, the Cherokee Nation is now part of a nationwide resurgence of Indians trying to reconnect with the hunchbacked, long-haired animals—popularly known as American buffalo—that hold a central place in traditions. and centuries-old beliefs.
Since 1992, the InterTribal Council of Buffalo, a federally chartered entity, has helped move surplus bison from places like Badlands National Park in South Dakota; Yellowstone National Park, in Wyoming; and the Grand Canyon National Park, in Arizona, to 82 tribes in 20 states.
“Collectively, these tribes care for more than 20,000 buffalo on tribal land,” said Troy Heinert, a Rosebud Sioux tribal member who serves as executive director of the Rapid City, South Dakota-based Buffalo Inter-Tribal Council. . “Our goal and mission is to recover the buffaloes in the indigenous country because of that cultural and spiritual connection that the indigenous people have with the buffalo.”
Centuries ago, an estimated 30 to 60 million bison roamed the North American Great Plains, from Canada to Texas. But by the 1900s, European settlers had virtually driven the species to the brink of extinction, hunting them en masse for their prized pelt and often leaving their carcasses to rot on the prairie.
“It is important to recognize the history that Native peoples had with the buffalo and how the buffalo was virtually decimated… Now, with the buffalo revival, often led by Native nations, we are also seeing that spiritual and cultural awakening that comes along with with him,” said Heinert, who is a state senator from South Dakota.
Historically, indigenous peoples hunted and used all parts of the bison: for food, clothing, tools, and ceremonial purposes. But they did not consider the bison as a mere product, but as beings closely linked to people.
“Many tribes considered them as a relative,” Heinert noted. “You can see that in the ceremonies, the language and the songs.”
Rosalyn LaPier, a Native American writer and scholar who grew up on the Blackfeet Nation reservation in Montana, said there are different mythological stories about the origin of the bison among the various peoples of the Great Plains.
“Depending on which indigenous group you talk to, the bison arose from the supernatural realm and ended up on Earth for humans to take advantage of,” said LaPier, an environmental historian and ethnobotanist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus.
“And there’s usually some kind of story about how humans were taught to hunt bison, kill bison, and slaughter them,” he added.
His Blackfeet tribe, for example, believes that there are three realms: the heavenly world, the world below—that is, Earth—and the underwater world. Tribal lore, LaPier says, claims that the Blackfeet were vegetarians until an orphaned bison escaped from the underwater world in human form and was adopted by two loving humans. As a result, the divine leader of the underwater bison allowed more to come to Earth to be hunted and eaten.
In Oklahoma, the Cherokee Nation, which with 437,000 registered members is one of the largest Native American tribes in North America, had a few bison on their land in the 1970s. But they disappeared.
It wasn’t until 40 years later that the tribe’s contemporary herd emerged, when a huge cattle truck driven by Heinert arrived in the fall of 2014 with 38 bison from Badlands National Park. He was greeted with prayers and moving songs from the tribe.
“I still remember the dew that covered the grass and the songs of the birds that were in the trees… That day I could feel the hope and the pride in the Cherokee people,” Heinert said.
Since then, births and the arrival of more bison from various locations have increased the population to about 215. The herd roams a 500-acre (2-square-kilometer) pasture in Bull Hollow, an unincorporated area of Delaware County located about 70 miles (113 kilometers) northeast of Tulsa, near the small town of Kenwood.
For now, the Cherokee do not slaughter the animals, whose males can weigh up to 2,000 pounds (900 kilograms) and be more than 6 feet (6 feet) tall, as leaders focus on growing the herd. But in the future, bison, a lean protein, could be used as a food source for Cherokee schools and nutrition centers, said Bryan Warner, the tribe’s deputy chief.
“Our hope is not just for the sake of food sovereignty, but to really reconnect our citizens to the spiritual path,” said Warner, a member of the United Methodist Church.
The reconnection leads in turn to discussions of other fauna, he added, from rabbits and turtles to quail and doves.
“All these animals… they make you more in tune with nature,” he said, as some bison waddled across a nearby pond. “And then basically it makes you more in tune with yourself, because we all come from the same clay that these animals are made of… from our Creator.”
Originally from the southeastern United States, the Cherokee were forced to relocate to present-day Oklahoma in 1838 after gold was discovered on their ancestral lands. The 1,600-kilometer (1,000-mile) trek, known as the Trail of Tears, claimed nearly 4,000 lives due to disease and difficult travel conditions.
Although bison are more associated with Great Plains tribes than those native to the East Coast, the Cherokee newcomers had a connection to a slightly smaller subspecies, according to Mackey. The animals currently on the tribe’s land are not direct descendants, he explained, but rather close cousins with whom the tribe may have a spiritual bond.
“We don’t speak the same language as the bison,” Mackey said. “But when you sit with them and spend time with them, relationships can be developed over… means other than just language: sharing experiences, sharing the same space and just having a sense of respect. Your body language changes when you have respect for someone or something.
Mackey grew up with Pentecostal roots on his father’s side and Baptists on his mother’s side. He occasionally goes to church, but finds much greater meaning in Cherokee ceremonial practices.
“Even if (tribe members) are raised in church or synagogue or wherever they choose to pray, their ancestry is Cherokee ancestry,” he said. “And this idea of relationship, respect and protection with the soil, with the Earth, with everything that resides in it, passes from generation to generation. It still penetrates our identity as a Cherokee people.”
That is why he believes that the return of the bison to Cherokee lands is so important.
“Bison are not just meat,” he said. “They represent abundance, health and strength.”
The Associated Press’ coverage of religion is supported through its partnership with The Conversation US, with funding from the Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.