Held at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum on Friday, the Buffalo Festival Symposium celebrated the historical significance of the bison, often referred to as buffalo, to indigenous people while discussing its potential as a symbol of truth and reconciliation.
“Our mission is to bring back the buffalo mentally through education, physically by feeding people buffalo, spiritually by holding ceremony, and emotionally by allowing ourselves to be reconnected,” said Joely Bigeagle-Kequahtooway.
The symposium consisted of a full day of presentations, art, prayer, food, and discussion. It was put on by the Buffalo People Arts Institute.
“We’re in the age of truth and reconciliation,” Bigeagle-Kequahtooway said. “A big part of ‘truth’ is telling people what happened to the buffalo and how the buffalo helped us get through some of the hard times and get us here.”
Once numbering in the tens of millions, bison sustained a way of life for indigenous people in North America for thousands of years. The animal was used as a food source throughout the year, its hides used in teepees and clothing, and its bones fashioned into tools. Bison were also centre to spiritual ceremony.
“You had to be an expert in killing buffalo, but you also knew that you couldn’t kill off all the buffalo cause we needed them to survive,” said Bigeagle-Kequahtooway.
Once Europeans arrived, however, those numbers began to dwindle. The settlers hunted bison not only to use for trade, but also as a means of exterminating the food source of the indigenous people they were competing with.
Bison populations were nearly exterminated. By the late 1800s, plains bison no longer existed in Canada and wood bison numbered about 200, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia.
“Having them killed off for settlement. That trauma resides our body,” Bigeagle-Kequahtooway said. “I don’t think Indigenous people have had time to heal from that. In the face of one trauma after another, whether being forced to live on reserves or being put into residential schools, I feel like we’ve never had time to mourn the buffalo.”
Dr. Leroy Littlebear was one of the presenters at the event. Littlebear was one of the driving forces behind the creation of the Buffalo treaty in 2014. Signed by more than 20 First Nations, the goal of the treaty is to reintroduce buffalo into First Nations’ lands.
Littlebear says Bison are a keystone animal that can form a base of both ecosystem and culture.
Mostly due to demand for their meat, North American bison have been rehabilitated and farmed to a population numbering in the hundreds of thousands.
Bigeagle-Kequahtooway thinks the timing is right to start exploring how Indigenous cultural symbols like the bison can again hold great importance to society.
“I believe it was Louis Riel who said: ‘In a hundred years my people will awaken. It will be the people in the arts who will lead the way,'” she said. “We’re reawakening and remembering where we come from so that we can showcase our talent, our intelligence, our story. And we’re willing to share.”