Joely BigEagle-Kequahtooway is on a quest to bring back the buffalo.
The interdisciplinary artist from White Bear First Nation in Saskatchewan began her journey more than a decade ago.
In that time, she has read books, heard stories and spoken with elders to reconnect with the buffalo mentally, spiritually, emotionally and physically.
“A lot of the work that I do is related to the history of the buffalo and telling that story,” she said.
“I’ve been looking for buffalo-minded people because some of those stories are lost. And I think a big part of that is because of residential schools.”
BigEagle-Kequahtooway said she was in her 20s when she started learning about the traumatic legacy of residential schools.
Her mother and older sister are survivors, while her younger brother attended what was one of the last residential schools to close, in Lebret, Sask.
“The fear was instilled in our people not to know their language, not to know their history, not to know their culture and not to go to ceremonies,” she said.
“I started learning what residential school took away from us, and one of these things is the history and how we are connected to the buffalo.”
Read more: Shaping Saskatchewan
BigEagle-Kequahtooway said once her family returned to ceremonies, where they would sing buffalo songs and take in stories, it felt like tapping into a long-lost memory.
“What happened to the buffalo? Because I’d hear ‘vanished,’ ‘disappeared,’ and was it a black hole in the earth? There was just this weird wording around it,” she said.
The question of what happened set the artist on a quest. She began building trust with elders, learning and sharing stories of the buffalo.
Several years ago, BigEagle-Kequahtooway co-founded the Buffalo People Art Institute in Regina with her husband, Lorne. Together they provide land-based teachings such as week-long buffalo hide workshops.
“We’re out in the community. We’re talking about buffalo with the young people. Talking about the importance of these ceremonies because we have the buffalo in our sun dances and our sweat lodges,” she said.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has forced their experiential teachings online, BigEagle-Kequahtooway said the work is too crucial to pause.
“It’s important to talk about these stories because our children and our grandchildren are struggling. They need that identity,” she said.
“I don’t necessarily see myself as a leader, but just as a community member who wants their community to rise up.”
BigEagle-Kequahtooway said the return of the buffalo, both spiritually and physically, is an act of reconciliation. Or, at least, a starting point.
“Reconciliation isn’t something that is really attainable right now. But the truth is. So we talk about these truths — what happened to the buffalo?” she said.
“They didn’t disappear. They were purposefully killed off in the hopes that if they killed our food source, that we would die.”
BigEagle-Kequahtooway said by confronting this history, Indigenous Peoples can reclaim their connection to Buffalo Nation and understand they come from strength.
She remains hopeful, pointing to the work of organizations in Canada and the U.S. to return buffalo, also referred to as bison, to the lands they once roamed freely.
In Saskatchewan, herds have been re-introduced in Wanuskewin Heritage Park and Poundmaker Cree Nation.
“When I hear of the buffalo returning to these First Nations, I’m definitely there championing them,” she said, adding that her home community of White Bear is in the planning stages of bringing in bison.
Still, she said, the damage done by colonialism will take many decades to repair.
“You bring back the buffalo, but what are they going to eat? You have to make sure the proper grasses are there,” she said.
BigEagle-Kequahtooway added once the buffalo return, even if herds have to be fed by humans at first, the agricultural lands and grasses should begin to heal over time.
To learn more about how Joely BigEagle-Kequahtooway is Shaping Saskatchewan, watch the video above.