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When the people of Stevens Village faced a meat shortage, they reached across time for an answer.

The remote native community is located on Alaska's Yukon River 90 air miles northwest of Fairbanks. Historically, moose numbers have been low. Caribou would be good, but they don't inhabit the area.

Stevens Village has no trust land, and no treaty to ensure native hunting rights. As wild food sources dwindled, the people turned to an animal that hadn't been seen in generations.

The Stevens Village people once hunted wood bison, a heavier cousin of the more familiar plains bison. So they decided to bring wood bison back.

Native people in Canada offered to help, says Randy Mayo, tribal administrator/buffalo farm manager. But red tape and a "mad cow" disease scare quashed those plans. Thus, the tribe settled on plains buffalo, animals born and bred in Alaska. In 2005, a band of 18 head was established.

Trouble was, people and bison had become strangers.

"The tribal membership felt that we had been away from this animal for so long, and this animal had been away from us, that in that spiritual context, we didn't know each other anymore," Mayo says.

However, the Lakota people of South Dakota have retained stronger ties to the shaggy beasts. So with the help of the Intertribal Buffalo Council of Rapid City, S.D., a spiritual assist occurred.

Rocky Afraid of Hawk, from the Cheyenne River Lakota Nation, visited Stevens Village. He conducted "the making of relatives" ceremony to re-establish a relationship.

"It was pretty powerful," Mayo says. "There were miracles that day."

Mayo hopes buffalo will help usher in better health. In isolated Alaskan villages, where incomes are low and wild game increasingly scarce, native people have come to depend on cheap, processed food. Chronic ailments such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease are a result. Lean buffalo meat is viewed as one antidote.

Stevens Village now runs 100 buffalo on 2,000 acres.

The Crow Nation of Montana owns 1,200 buffalo, largest of the tribal herds. The animals originated in North Dakota's Theodore Roosevelt National Park and were reintroduced in 1971.

The Crow buffalo roam Big Horn Mountain pastures in southern Montana comprising 29,000 acres, and they are afforded access to another 200,000 acres. For all the expanse, only about three-fourths of a mile of fencing has been erected. Natural barriers, like mountain cliffs, keep the bisons' rambling in check.

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"These ones are the wild bunch, you might call them," Truman Jefferson, assistant buffalo pasture manager, says with a laugh. "They love it."

Like Stevens Village, the Crow people hope buffalo will help eradicate diet-related diseases. Every fall, people from six Crow communities harvest buffalo and distribute the meat. Jefferson says eventually the tribe hopes to process buffalo not only for the Crow people, but to sell to nontribal members as well.

The Ponca people of Nebraska have no reservation. But they do have buffalo.

In 1966, the federal government withdrew official recognition, thereby dissolving the tribe. The Ponca Restoration Act, signed in 1990, resurrected the tribe, but with a provision that the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska could not establish a reservation.

Even so, the Poncas obtained buffalo from Wind Cave National Park starting in 1997 and the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge. They live in two herds, totaling 102 animals, on about 525 acres purchased by the tribe.

The Poncas also have established an Adopt-A-Buffalo program. For a donation that varies according to a critter's status -- $25 for a yearling, $50 for a herd animal and $100 for a head herd bull -- herd manager Larry Wright Sr. will send out an official adoption photo and certificate. The money helps support the bison project.

Wright says buffalo meat is distributed to tribal members, but ceremonial ties have been lost. Once, there was a Buffalo Dance, but it's no longer performed.

 

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