While the concept may not be a topic of household conversation, people across the country and globe are becoming increasingly aware of Indigenous food sovereignty efforts.

One such effort garnering particular traction is the long-standing effort of bison (or buffalo) restoration, an attempt to undo the effects of the intentional near eradication of buffalo in the 1800s as a genocidal, settler-colonial tactic to solve the “Indian problem.” In the 1980s, my father, Fred DuBray, set out on a mission to restore buffalo to their homelands and our relationship to the buffalo, joining and bolstering a collective and often considered “radical” movement of what Leanne Simpson describes as “Indigenous resurgence.”

My dad and other Native folks in their communities came together and started the Intertribal Buffalo Cooperative (ITBC) which, at the time, centered the buffalo and respect for them as much as it did the values and needs of the Tribal communities involved.

In recent years though, I fear the movement, even in our own communities, has been obscured by ungrounded hyperfixation on Western agriculture, white conservation, and economic development, which while may be well-intended, undermines the tangible potential that buffalo restoration has to be a mechanism for radical change.

I myself am a daughter of the movement, born directly out of the decades of frontline buffalo restoration advocacy work of my parents and so many others. I have been privileged to live my whole life knowing this foundational work has been done and in a time where buffalo restoration is no longer some wild idea.

Buffalo restoration has become an established national effort, with a Department of the Interior working group dedicated to the issue. (Photo by Elsie M. DuBray)

Today, I’m confronted with the present reality of these efforts - a time where buffalo restoration is a more established, increasingly emerging national conversation. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 20,500 buffalo exist within U.S. conservation herds and 450,000 in commercial herds. PBS reports that 82 Tribes manage 65 buffalo herds and programs, and there is even a federal working group under the Department of the Interior dedicated to buffalo restoration, funded by the March 2023 Inflation Reduction Act as part of a “restoration and resilience framework.”

Much of this present reality deserves to be celebrated; it has taken a lot of incredible Indigenous and allied organizing and advocacy work to get to this point. However, in many instances these successes have cast a shadow under which a complacency within the larger buffalo restoration movement has developed. The optical “wins” of X many buffalo here and Y over there, for example, may overshadow the way a buffalo program began answering the calls of capitalism as opposed to the calls of our ancestors’ prayers. Or the way we brush aside the moral calamity of a feedlot for buffalo when it means a grocery store thousands of miles away may be able to carry a bison tenderloin.

This issue is not unique; we’ve seen similar contradictions in other sectors of food justice and sustainability movements from the white-washing of regenerative agriculture (an Indigenous agricultural ideology according to Adae Briones) to the green-washing of the hyper-processed plant-based food industry. This is dangerous territory.

When done “in a good way,” as my people like to say, revitalizing ancestral Indigenous food systems-has an almost unparalleled potential to heal (as Netflix documentary Gather highlights about my family’s work with buffalo and other Native folks’ experiences in their communities). But there are consequences when values are compromised, as is seen in recent disease outbreaks that once again threaten the hard-fought buffalo herd numbers to a severe degree not seen since the 1800s. . We must make a decision about how we are going to carry ourselves forward within this work, and we must make the right one.

The current moment we’re in is unique. Many Tribes now have a baseline of resources and infrastructure that grants a new level of agency in the operation of our buffalo programs. With this agency comes great responsibility. As Tribal nations and buffalo people, we need to be deeply intentional about how we choose to proceed with our efforts of buffalo restoration. I’m not interested in a “buffalo restoration” that replicates the cattle industry and attempts to turn buffalo into agents of the larger, extended settler-colonial project that the U.S. operates within and perpetuates.

I am not interested in building programs that compromise our respect for the buffalo for the sake of mass production, yet these are the things I see happening in several herds across the country in Tribal herds as well as the herds of Native and non-Native ranchers alike. To me, this cattle-washing of the buffalo restoration movement is antithetical to what the movement is meant to inspire and restore, just as the gross mistreatment of buffalo in much of the modern industry is antithetical to how my people understand these beings.

Integrity is the fulcrum of any meaningful buffalo restoration effort: the integrity of our shared and unique cultural values that define our kinship to the buffalo and, inextricably, our responsibility as their kin to protect, honor, and uphold the integrity of the buffalo themselves. What exactly are we restoring if we fail to answer this question of integrity? Buffalo must not become solely about numbers - numbers of buffalo or numbers of zeros they add to a Tribe’s economy.

Buffalo restoration at its core is about relationships. I ask, how are we going to honor ours?

Elsie DuBray (Oohenunpa Lakota, Nueta, and Hidatsa) is a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota and was raised on a buffalo ranch on the CRST reservation. She graduated with her B.S. from Stanford University in 2023 and is currently a master’s student in the Community Health and Prevention Research program at Stanford University’s School of Medicine. Her interests lie in the radical, holistic health implications of Indigenous food sovereignty and have manifested in her involvement in GATHER film (2020) and her family’s nonprofit, Buffalo First.

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