Tribal nations across what we now consider the Great Plains relied for millennia on their buffalo relatives for food, medicine, clothing, tools, and shelter. Yet today it is hard to find buffalo meat on school meal trays in the very areas where they once sustained Native communities. The Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) is working with tribal partners to figure out why and to remove the barriers we can.
The Biden-Harris Administration and Secretary Vilsack have made it a priority to better meet our federal trust and treaty responsibilities. Historically, the U.S. government played a significant role in the decimation of the buffalo population in the North American continent, with a policy of destroying buffalo in order to starve Native Americans into submission. We recognize the weight of these actions and our obligation to better support tribes in restoring buffalo across their lands.
On Monday, June 6, my colleagues at FNS, Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), Rural Development, Agricultural Marketing Service, and the USDA Office of Tribal Relations, and I were honored to be invited by the InterTribal Buffalo Council (ITBC) and members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to participate in a traditional buffalo slaughter and field harvest. ITBC is a coalition of 69 federally recognized tribes that has led the work to restore buffalo to Indian Country since 1992. Our traditional harvest was led by Lisa and Arlo Iron Cloud who work with Makoce Agriculture Development, an Indigenous agriculture organization led by Nick Hernandez on Pine Ridge. Ms. Iron Cloud is also partnering with USDA’s Indigenous Food Sovereignty Initiative to help create resources on sustainable, Indigenous food foraging practices.
This “hands-on” experience was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for which we are so grateful to Lisa, Arlo, the ITBC, and the Oglala Lakota Nation Tribal leadership to get a glimpse into the cultural, spiritual, and practical contributions of buffalo to the Lakota people.
We saw first-hand the importance of providing opportunities for American Indian children to engage in hands-on nutrition education about buffalo and to be able to taste and regularly eat buffalo as part of their school meals. FNS has worked to address some of the barriers that make it challenging for schools to serve buffalo, but we recognize that we must do more. We look forward to continuing to partner with ITBC and tribal leaders to advance Indigenous food sovereignty priorities and restore buffalo in Indian Country.
Learn more about USDA Food and Nutrition Service demonstration projects in tribal communities and USDA’s Indigenous Food Sovereignty Initiative.