Kiowa elder John Emhoolah recounts the history of the Native American tribes that crossed through the Soapstone Prairie. (Photo by William A. Cotton, CSU Photography)
As sweet smoke rose from a tiny cast-iron pan and nervous bison stomped in their pen, Kiowa elder John Emhoolah crooned a blessing to the beasts. Drumbeats pulsed with heartbeats during an ancient ritual meant to cleanse the bison herd and its caregivers.
Before the Laramie Foothills Bison Conservation Herd moved from the Colorado State University Foothills Campus to its new home at Soapstone Prairie Natural Area and Red Mountain Open Space, Native Americans, scientists and government partners gathered for a private cedaring ceremony to prepare the bison for their transition.
The sacred moment on Oct. 20 was the result of months of planning that started with a simple question from the bison team: How would the Native American community like to participate in the return of bison to the landscape?
CSU’s Native American Cultural Center sought the advice of elders from various tribes, and the answer became clear.
“I called an Omaha elder from the Buffalo Clan,” said Jan Iron, a member of the Navajo Nation who works for the CSU Agricultural Experiment Station. “She said, ‘You have to cedar them off and make sure Mr. Emhoolah is there.’”
So, in mid-October, before the 10 bison were loaded onto a trailer for the 25-mile journey north, a small group of people gathered at the animals’ pen. The bison were restless, jittery from the human activity around them.
Emhoolah, the Kiowa celebrant, is a Korean War veteran and language consultant to AMC’s railroad drama, “Hell on Wheels.” He set up a folding table in the corral. He set out a polished wooden box and small lumps of charcoal in the tiny skillet. In a rhythmic voice, he recounted the story of his people and their connection to the bison and the land:
In the north, the land we called home is east of the Teton Mountains, what we call Yellowstone today. That’s the homeland of the Kiowa. Along with the Comanche, together we moved southward.
There were thousands of tepees made out of buffalo skins. The buffalo – we used every part for food, clothing, you name it, we used it. Along with the Crows up by the Bighorn River, the Kiowas ranged from Yellowstone to the Black Hills of South Dakota. There were no dividing lines in those days.
I was told this by my grandma many years ago. This is how history was passed on by Kiowa and other Plains Indians. In the northern herd, there were millions, I won’t say thousands, but millions of buffalo, as far as you could see, and you could walk through them my grandma said, along with the elk, deer and antelope. There were so many buffalo on Mother Earth.
We Kiowa are the eighth generation from the time we left Yellowstone. This herd over here must be eighth generation of the buffalo, so we meet up again. We celebrate that today. We want to thank Colorado State University for bringing us together. It’s good what you are doing, preservation of these animals.
Emhoolah moved from oral history to ceremony, requesting that the ritual not be recorded or photographed. He called it a convocation.
Throughout Emhoolah’s storytelling, the bison lumbered back and forth in their enclosure, punctuating his words with their hoof beats.
Then brothers Dwayne Iron, who is Pawnee, Crow and Navajo, and Zach Rockwell, Navajo, began to beat their drum. As Emhoolah led a Kiowa buffalo dance song, the bison bunched together and stood still, turning woolly heads toward the sound. Ten pairs of big brown eyes watched as the Native men sang a blessing to the herd.
As the song resonated among the bison and people circled in the corral, Emhoolah pinched cedar tips from a red leather pouch. He sprinkled the piney crumbles over hot coals and a campfire aroma blended with earthy animal scents. With eagle feathers in a beaded handle, Emhoolah fanned cedar smoke over each person in the circle, and toward the little bison herd.
“The history of the buffalo is kind of like the history of our people. We were almost wiped out,” said Jan Iron, whose sons drummed at the cedar blessing and at the official bison release on Nov. 1. “I’m so glad CSU and the city and the county included us in doing what we felt in our hearts was right on behalf of the buffalo. It made me feel good, like we’re doing the right thing, following our own teachings.”
Students connect to bison through research
Along with these sacred blessings, Native Americans are studying the Laramie Foothills Bison Conservation Herd and its impacts. Several CSU students are part of reproductive and ecological research tied to the bison reintroduction project.
Brennan Lewis, a member of the Cherokee tribe, is working on his master’s degree in assisted reproductive technologies. It’s a privilege to participate in the science of conservation after hearing bison stories from his grandmother, Lewis said.
“They’re just so cool to work with – their sheer power just captures you. Cattle are strong, but bison are so much more explosive. You can tell that they are a wild animal,” said Lewis, who plans to return to his native Oklahoma and work in cattle reproduction.
Amanda Interpreter, a junior studying rangeland and restoration ecology, has helped to document wildlife already living in the bison pasture and adjacent open space. She hopes to return to the Navajo Reservation where she grew up and contribute to conservation efforts around the Kayenta and Black Mesa coal mine sites.
“Being raised to respect the earth, I just want to give back to my community,” Interpreter said. “I really respect that the university asked the Crow elders to do their own blessing, that they gave us that respect. Not a lot of people stop and consider the Native community.”
Seeing bison hooves hit the ground
For Tyrone Smith, director of the CSU Native American Cultural Center, the return of the bison to the area is a homecoming.
“To see such a tremendous animal, an American icon, have its hooves touch the ground in this area again, it’s beautiful. It’s a blessing for this area. As Native people, we feel it’s like a nation coming back home,” Smith said.
He brought his young son to the private blessing ceremony so the boy could feel the wind blow and see the bison run.
“I really wanted him to see this and understand the significance of today – that there were buffalo here at one time, and they are back again. And now people can enjoy them once again,” Smith said. “The public can come out here and see them in this prairie setting and learn the history of what was once here.”
Native American bison talk
The CSU Native American Cultural Center will host a discussion about the importance of bison to Native American culture. Solomon Little Owl, a leader of Crow Nation business and veterans programs, is scheduled as guest speaker. Little Owl, former director of Native American Student Services at the University of Northern Colorado, has organized a number of cross-cultural experiences focused on bison in the Bighorn Mountains.
The bison discussion will begin at 6 p.m. Monday, Nov. 2, in the Lory Student Center Longs Peak Room. The gathering is open to the students and community.