J. Gudgell

When working in Indian country and with tribal sovereigns it’s important to be discerning when it comes to who is in a credible position to speak for any or all the tribes, or what are authentic Indian voices.

Indian country is a mosaic of complex political and cultural landscapes. Sensationalism is an unfortunate byproduct of Hollywood’s exploitation of the Indian people. While the untrained eye may not recognize these “Hollywood Indians,” they  reveal themselves as captives of ego mimicking colonial/settler constructs of self-righteous environmental elitism.

Sensationalized smearing of dozens of Tribal Nations who enjoy ancient sacred relationships with the natural world and our four-legged relatives, with gory depictions of Tribal harvest of Yellowstone Bison, conveniently avoids the real issue of an irredeemably broken management regime and the Montana livestock industry’s decades-long stranglehold on bison management. Montana’s Department of Livestock knows exactly what it’s doing when it requires Tribal harvest of wild bison to take place out in the open, in full public view, and in a confined area.

How is killing and field-dressing a buffalo any different than killing and field-dressing an elk, a moose, or any other game? What is the point of glorifying the details of such an ancient ritual other than to inflame public attitudes against Tribal people?

There is no shame in Tribal harvest of wild buffalo, though the circumstances imposed on Tribal Reservations and “Buffalo Reservations” like Yellowstone National Park, with its artificially constrained population, is truly shameful -and in need of meaningful reparations.

Relying on “yellow journalism” to purposely bait and switch the reader’s attention from the systemic issues, as Jaedin Medicine Elk likes to do, effectively obscures the underlying colonialism of cattle barons dictating the terms of harvest to the Tribes. It also serves to denigrate the life-ways and ecological knowledge of traditional cultures that have arisen from a 15,000 year-old sacred relationship between Indigenous people and the buffalo.

And contrary to the revisionist history of certain pseudo-scholars in Montana’s mostly-white conservation community who never bother subjecting their spurious work to peer-review - choosing instead friendly venues like Wildlife News and CounterPunch that refuse to publish rebuttals - it is not the fault of the Tribes that there are fewer than 10,000 wild buffalo left on Turtle Island.

Playing along with Montana’s strategy to demonize the Tribes for the sins of the settlers also serves to undermine the legal authority retained in nearly a dozen treaties - sovereign promises between the federal government and nearly 30 Tribal Nations.

This, in turn, plays into the treaty culture of the U.S. government - starting first with tribes and then the rest of the world - to break, dishonor, ignore, unilaterally exit, and/or refuse to ratify critical global agreements intended to prevent war crimes and genocides.

The Hollywood sensationalism employed by Roam Free Nation not only serves the interests of Montana’s cattle barons, it also feeds the narrative of Indians as “less-than." There is a higher-level response and analysis of this environmental elitism, centering evidence of indigenous cultures as “more-than” and acknowledging that over 80% of the worlds’ remaining biodiversity is a result of Indigenous stewardship.

Specifically, it’s the Tribes that understand long-term, holistic solutions for Yellowstone Bison, grounded in science-based, empirically proven traditional ecological knowledge that has been developed through our ancient relationship with the natural world and our four-legged relatives.

At the end of the day, the race-based genocide and near-eradication of the traditional food source of Tribal Nations, now beloved by all, disqualifies the livestock industry and the legislatures it controls from any say in how Yellowstone Bison should recover.

As the global scientific community and the Biden administration now recognize, it’s up to the Tribes to determine how wild bison should be managed, working cooperatively with federal wildlife biologists and ecologists.

J. Dallas Gudgell is a member of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of Montana, and is on the board for Buffalo Field Campaign