This is the first time a herd of this size has lived on the land in more than 150 years, following annihilation of the species after colonization.
Blaine Favel, band member and former chief of Poundmaker, said the community acquired the bison through a federal government and Parks Canada program.
The bison came from Elk Island National Park in Alberta. The community found out in December they would be getting the bison and quickly started constructing a 40-acre fenced compound.
“I’ve had the good fortune of being involved in politics and business and lots of cool experiences in my life in academia but this is way up there,” Favel said. “It’s way up there for cool experiences in my life.”
Favel said the nation also approved another 500 acres of land to be fenced off as the bison population grows.
Poundmaker Chief Duane Antoine said the plan is to continue expanding the compound and pastures as the herd grows.
“Years and years ago our elders used to say buffalo will be coming back. That’s what they predicted and it’s coming true,” Antonie said.
By summer, the community will start breeding the bison. Favel said the herd is mostly comprised of females. He added it’s important for the community to focus on breeding the bison.
He explained that there’s only about 1,500 pure plains bison in Canada and about 500,000 bison mixed with cows. He says this was done out of fear that the bison species would disappear.
By April, the community will have 10 new bison, growing the herd to 30. Favel said the first milestone the First Nation wants to meet is expanding the herd to 100 bison over the next five years.
“It’s a growing experience, but the next generation, they’ll be experts and we’ll have lots of eyes and I’m hoping they’ll bring good energy to the people and that they feed people,” Favel said. “They feed them physically, spiritually, and they just remind people to have some pride.”
Favel explained how significant bison are to the Indigenous culture and traditional ways, calling them a sacred animal synonymous with life.
“It was a gift that was taken away from us,” Favel said.
The bison were released into the compound on Feb. 19. Favel said the community had a ceremony for that special moment that included elders praying and singing sacred songs.
Both Favel and Antoine said this is an educational moment for the community’s youth as well.
Favel explained that sacred ceremonies such as this one are not typically recorded but he got permission from one of the elders to record this ceremony.
The elder told Favel that because this generation of youth learns from their phones and videos, he wanted it to be recorded so young people can understand the cultural significance of welcoming bison back to the community.
“(It is) a proud moment because 150 years later we still have our ways, we’ve survived,” Favel said. “That’s a proud moment just the strength of our spirituality and our prayers of our elders.”
Antoine said the moment was emotional.
“The buffalo went through a lot through the 1800s when they were all slaughtered often to make room for settlers and as well for newcomers.”
He added that students will take field trips to the compound to see the bison in the future.
— With files from Anna McMillan