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Before colonization, bison sustained Indigenous people of the Prairies, but then their herds dwindled, disappeared or were hybridized with cattle. Now, Poundmaker Cree Nation and a handful of other bands are helping purebred animals make a comeback

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Purebred bison come down the chute and onto the snows of Poundmaker Cree Nation in Saskatchewan.Photography by David Stobbe/the Globe and Mail

Bison #611 went first. It made a noisy exit out the back of a semi-trailer and down the chute, hooves clanking, metal rattling. Then, as it galloped onto the snow-covered pasture on Poundmaker Cree Nation, the clatter quieted. The hulking yearling was home.

Another 20 bison followed #611, banging down the chute before running off into the field. Floyd Favel and his fellow elders prayed at the edge of the pasture before the bison were released. Local drummers and singers sang songs honouring the animals. Community members milled around a fire, downing Tim Hortons coffee and doughnuts. One woman wore a ribbon skirt. A braid of sweetgrass smoldered.

It has been more than a century since genetically pure Plains bison – paskwaw mostos in Cree, iinnii in Blackfoot, Bison bison bison in scientific literature, and buffalo in casual conversation – dotted the Prairies, sustaining Indigenous people. Now, a handful of bands in Western Canada are hoping to re-establish bison herds on their homelands. Mr. Favel described how the homecoming made him feel in Cree: ninaheyihten. “It was a very spiritual feeling of completion,” he said.I was completed. ... There’s also gratitude [and] satisfaction mixed in that word.”

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Elder Floyd Favel was part of the ceremony surrounding the bison's release.

Poundmaker’s bison came from Elk Island National Park, just east of Edmonton. There are only about 1,500 genetically pure Plains bison in North America – and 600 of those live in Elk Island. The majority of bison in North America sport cattle genes; genetically pure Plains bison all descend from the same 50 animals.

Parks Canada distributes surplus genetically pure bison to conservation organizations and Indigenous communities as part of its herd management program. In February, four Indigenous communities welcomed animals: Poundmaker, about 65 kilometres northwest of the Battlefords; Onion Lake Cree Nation, which is northwest of Poundmaker; Frog Lake First Nations 121 & 122, which is about 250 kilometres northeast of Edmonton; and the Blood Tribe, also known as the Kainai Nation, in Southern Alberta.

Filmmaker Tasha Hubbard, also a professor at the University of Alberta, is documenting the return of purebred bison to Indigenous communities. Bison and Indigenous people have interconnected relationships, she explained.

“We have shared the same fate as the buffalo,” she said. “There was this move to settle the West. Both buffalo and Indigenous people were seen as obstacles to be removed, [by] whatever means possible.”

Later, when Indigenous people were confined to reserves, purebred bison existed almost exclusively in captivity. Now, another shift.

“We are now in a time where we are in renewal. We are in recovery,” said Dr. Hubbard, who is from Peepeekisis First Nation and has ties to Thunderchild First Nation in Saskatchewan.

“We’re revitalizing our language, and our stories are being told in wider and wider networks. Part of that comes with reconnecting with what buffalo mean to us – they took care of us for centuries.”

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Poundmaker was one of four nations to welcome purebred bison in February under Parks Canada's herd management program.

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Geronimo Tootoosis puts a braid of sweetgrass onto coals before the ceremony to welcome the bison, which elders allowed to be photographed to serve as a teaching moment.

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The Yellow Horse singers and Chief Poundmaker School singers performing at the ceremony.

In 2014, the Blood Tribe was among the original signatories to the Buffalo Treaty. The treaty’s parties pledged to “honour, recognize and revitalize” the relationship they have with bison – and to do all they can to live amongst the animals once again.

The document emphasizes the importance of Indigenous people and bison nurturing each other spiritually and culturally.

Terri Quinney, the duty-to-consult co-ordinator at Onion Lake, took her grandsons to her nation’s bison repatriation festivities in mid-February. “It was so emotional. I had tears in my eyes,” she said. “We could feel the spirit of the buffalo.”

The return of the herds also bring practical elements. Indigenous leaders expect the herds will attract tourism dollars, a modern-day form of sustenance. They will also be used for education, such as teaching local youth how to slaughter animals and tan hides.

Bison skulls are also especially important in ceremonies, while their meat can be distributed in the community, providing food security from a traditional food source.

Poundmaker Cree Nation’s bison delivery from Elk Island included a five-year-old bull ready for slaughter. Elwin Tootoosis, a Poundmaker resident who will help manage the herd, said the harvested animal was processed into ground meat. He hopes there is enough for everyone on the reserve, but if not, elders will receive priority. The local school may also be favoured, he said.

Poundmaker Chief Duane Antoine also expects the bison could help boost mental health on the reserve. Reserves involved in the distribution program have set aside areas next to their pastures so community members can watch the bison, which will help Indigenous people reconnect with an animal so closely tied to their history, Mr. Antoine said.

Poundmaker elders had always said the bison would return, Mr. Antoine recalled. The reserve had once tried its hand at raising bison before, but that project failed. This effort, community members said, is more organized and has the support of the local leadership.

Mr. Antoine used to see the bison at Elk Island and wish Poundmaker could have some of its own someday. Mr. Favel, the elder who participated in the ceremonies in the region last month, was more skeptical that Indigenous people would once again live alongside bison.

“I never thought they’d come thundering back on to our community,” he said. “They took the long way to come back.”

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