Story and photos by Katie Simota
On Nov. 1, 2015, the first bison to walk upon the short-grass prairie of Northern Colorado in decades returned to Soapstone Prairie. For local Native Americans, the return was a momentous and emotional occasion.
“Hearing their hooves on the prairie again, it is the welcoming back of a nation,” said Ty Smith, director of the Native American Cultural Center at CSU.
Prior to the 1800s, up to 100 million bison roamed the Great Plains and were critical to the survival of Native Americans in the region, providing food, shelter and tools. Every part of the animal was valued: The hides became clothing and tipis, tools were crafted from bones, even fat was preserved to make soap.
The U.S. government was expanding west, but faced resistance from the indigenous peoples already living there. Tens of millions of bison were slaughtered by the government in an attempt to disrupt Native peoples’ livelihood and very survival. By the 1890s, less than 1,000 bison remained.
“What happened to the bison is similar to what happened to Native peoples after first contact with United States settlers,” Smith said. “The way the bison herds were treated, hunted to the brink of extinction, driven out of their natural areas and isolated — that’s really similar to the way Native peoples were treated.”
For Native Americans, seeing the return of the bison to Colorado’s prairie is a symbol of resilience and resistance, and a powerful reminder that, like the bison, indigenous people are still here.
To understand the impact of the return of the bison, it is important to first understand that, going back thousands of years, the survival of indigenous people in the Plains regions was closely tied to their relationship with bison.
“Larimer County has always been bison country. The bison had been Native peoples’ lifeblood in this area for at least 10,000 years,” said Jason LaBelle, an associate professor of archeology in the Department of Anthropology.
LaBelle investigates archaeological sites connected to bison in Larimer County, including bison bone-bed sites where bison were processed by local Native American tribes. The 2,700-year-old Kaplan-Hoover site, one of the largest known bison bone bed in Colorado, is located just west of Windsor. The site has been preserved, symbolizing the use of land thousands of years ago by Native American people who are still here today.
“It’s literally a time capsule of that hunt — we see the tools they used to process the meat,” LaBelle said. “Today it’s in the middle of a subdivision, with houses to the left and right of it. It has an address, and you can drive right up to it.”
Another site that LaBelle and his students documented is a bison jump just outside of Livermore that was excavated by CSU in the late ’60s. Here, Native Americans ran bison over a cliff overlooking the North Fork of the Poudre River. After the bison fell, the processing began.
“The bison thought they were running off to grass,” he said. “This shows Native American ingenuity in understanding landforms and how animals would have seen the land.”
A crossroads of different peoples
At Soapstone Prairie, archaeologists documented Folsom points made from obsidian, a volcanic rock that geologically cannot be found anywhere near the site, leading archaeologists to conclude that local Native Americans were trading with other tribes across the country.
“From consultations with Native American tribes and ethno-history, we have a good map from the last 300 years of folks who lived in this portion of Colorado,” LaBelle said. “The Comanche were migrating from the north to Texas. Apaches moved through this country. Arapaho and Cheyenne. Lakota peoples later in time. Utes from the West. Pawnee from the east. Northern Colorado is a crossroads of all different peoples.”
LaBelle explained that even the layout of Fort Collins can be traced back to the relationship between the bison and Native American tribes. Traveling along rivers, especially for horse-based people hunting bison, was a way for nomadic tribes to secure wood, shelter and a diversity of foods.
“People are now traveling really good road systems that Native peoples mapped thousands of years ago,” LaBelle explained. “Our east-west highways follow river systems. The Poudre, the South Platte and North Platte, connect people to the east. I-25 is where it is for a very good reason, right along the mountain front. You can go from Billings, Montana, down to Santa Fe in one straight line and navigate by keeping the mountains to your west.”
An enduring history
LaBelle’s research highlights the rich history of indigenous peoples and bison in northern Colorado and unveils an important truth: that Native Americans were successfully living in the Americas prior to colonization. The intentional slaughter of the bison in the 1800s was an attempt to disrupt indigenous ways of life and mirrored the near extinction of Native Americans. And yet, Native Americans from a multitude of tribes continue to flourish in northern Colorado today.
“The Lakotas and other plains tribes were closely connected to the Tatanka Oyate, the Buffalo Nation,” said Leo Swallow, a Fort Collins resident and member of the Lakota Nation. “After the bison slaughter it was outlawed for Native peoples to hunt any remaining buffalo. Our ceremonies, too, were outlawed. This changed our lifeways. Helping preserve the buffalo that we still have is a really good thing. I’d like to say wopila, thank you, to CSU for bringing back our relatives.”