In 2019, the Shoshone of Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation welcomed five bulls to their herd, and we were there to witness the homecoming.
Gather at the third gate. The truck arrives at 6 p.m.” This text message, from Jason Baldes, the Eastern Shoshone Tribe’s buffalo representative and the National Wildlife Federation tribal buffalo coordinator, announced the arrival of the Shoshone tribe’s new bison bulls.
That evening, I drove across Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation, through the community of Ethete and over the Little Wind River. At Pilot Butte Reservoir, I began to tally the gates in the fence that ran alongside the county highway to ensure I would wait at the correct gate. I didn’t need to count, though, as parked vehicles already lined the road’s shoulders. I had arrived at the Shoshone’s bison pasture.
I joined the crowd, greeting folks I knew and introducing myself to those I didn’t. As 6:00 passed, we speculated among ourselves why the bison transport might be late. A few weeks earlier, a semitruck that was supposed to pick up the bulls from Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana and deliver them to Wyoming had been hampered by deep snow and then mud; with access to the bison corral impossible, the transfer had to be rescheduled. Maybe weather had hijacked plans again?
As we waited, the sun sank and hovered above Crowheart Butte, a legendary battleground between the Shoshone and Bannock tribes and the Crow Tribe. A minivan-driving tourist — marked by out-of-state license plates — slowed, then braked. Poking her head out the window, the driver asked, “What do you guys look at?” Hank Herrera, a member of the drum circle that was waiting to welcome the new bison, replied, “Bison.” “I saw those in Yellowstone,” the driver replied somewhat dismissively. “Those were fake,” Herrera deadpanned in return.
With a wave, she sped off in her minivan to our chuckles. Had she parked and joined us, she would have witnessed a dream-become-reality: the return of the bison.
Hunters extirpated bison from the reservation of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe in 1885. In 2016, after a 131-year absence, bison stepped onto the reservation, which the Northern Arapaho Tribe now shares with the Shoshone, who purchased the five bulls arriving today to bring more genetics into the herd that they started in 2016.
“We want to manage buffalo as wildlife on the reservation to benefit all Indian people,” Baldes had told me from his home in Fort Washakie, Wyoming. “We depend on our wildlife population for food. It’s the elk, deer, and antelope that we harvest now, but bison is even healthier meat. Once we reach a sustainable population, tribal members will be able to harvest bison, too.”
Harvested animals will restore rites omitted for decades from Shoshone ceremonies because of the lack of bison. “Buffalo are essential to the sun dances of both the Shoshone and Arapaho tribes,” Baldes explained. “We were legally banned from practicing sun dances and sweat ceremonies until the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978. The return of the bison completes the circle to help us heal. It restores things taken from us.”
We want to manage buffalo as wildlife on the reservation to benefit all Indian people. -Jason Baldes
To honor the bison and the hopeful future they represent, we stood by the highway for hours. At dusk, the transport truck arrived with its precious cargo: five bison bulls that would increase the Shoshone’s herd to 33.
Herrera and the drum circle set out a drum and chairs and pulled out their drumsticks. They sang their welcome, their voices and drumbeat swelling as stars appeared in the darkened sky. We solemnly gathered around as tribal member Stanford Devinney ceremonially burned sage at the trailer’s stock door.
Finally, in the aromatic cleansing smoke of the healing sage, the bison stepped out onto their ancestral land.
Photography: (All images) courtesy Melissa Hemken
From our May/June 2021 issue