The buffalo graze calmly on the frost-covered prairie, their breath fogging the air as if nothing has changed in two centuries, their presence offering hope of a revived covenant with the Sioux.
Behind them, the rolling plains stretch to a hazy horizon at the Missouri River in north-central South Dakota. Fred DuBray gestures at the small herd of yearlings. He explains that the buffalo family structure mirrors the way the Sioux divided themselves into tiospa, or extended families.
"The buffalo is an integral part of our culture," DuBray says. "It's considered a very sacred animal and a central part of our spirituality."
Across the country, buffalo and Indians are renewing their symbiotic relationship as the Cheyenne River Sioux and other tribes work to restore bison--and the cultural and spiritual values tied to them--on tribal lands.
"At one time the buffalo were our economic base," DuBray says.
"We're talking about a whole way of life that's wrapped up in this, starting with a philosophy--the whole harmonic relationship with the environment."
DuBray is president of the Inter-Tribal Bison Cooperative, which represents 24 tribes from Maine to California interested in raising buffalo on tribal lands. He also manages the Cheyenne River tribe's herd of about 500 buffalo on 10,000 acres, one of the largest such tribal operations.
Raising buffalo isn't just for Great Plains tribes with lots of land. The 251-member Kalispel tribe in northeastern Washington, for example, raises 130 buffalo on its 4,600-acre reservation 50 miles north of Spokane.
"Besides the meat, we sell everything from the hoofs to the hides, the heads, the horn shells," says Francis Cullooyah, who oversees the Kalispel buffalo operation. "And then we use the bones for some of our local artisans here. There's really not much that's wasted."
The Kalispel tribe also uses buffalo meat in its nutrition programs and sells meat to other area tribes, Cullooyah says.
Bringing the buffalo back is an idea with special resonance for the Lakota; attempts to exterminate the buffalo in the 1800s went hand in hand with the attempts to exterminate Indians, DuBray says. Restoring the buffalo is part of reversing that process.
"If we bring these buffalo back into a healthy state, with that comes a healthier state of the people," DuBray says. "Before, it was a military strategy to eliminate the buffalo and eliminate our culture. Common sense would tell you that bringing buffalo back would bring people back into a healthy situation."
Eventually, much of the vast Cheyenne River reservation could be turned over to buffalo, DuBray says.
Funding has been a problem. Congress appropriated $450,000 to DuBray's cooperative this year after the 24 tribes asked for $2 million. And commercial loans can be hard to get because bankers aren't as familiar with buffalo as they are with cattle, he says.
Raising buffalo is ideal for the Lakota, says DuBray, who works in his tribe's planning office. Buffalo are not only a source of income but also a powerful cultural symbol. And restoring them means restoring the prairie and fighting erosion, pollution and threats to native species.
"Western thought and philosophy have a tendency to isolate and separate different issues and focus on the economy," DuBray says. "We're trying to take a holistic approach because that's consistent with the whole Indian philosophical background. We keep culture and spirituality at the forefront."
One of the main Indian cultural values is respect for nature, DuBray says.
"That's always been the strength of the Indian relation to buffalo--Indian people respecting the power within these animals," DuBray says. "Taking part of that in a respectful way has the impact of transferring that power into your own being."
The difference between cattle and buffalo illustrates the point, DuBray says. When Lakota elders first saw cattle, they warned the people not to eat such powerless and domesticated beasts, lest they become like cattle themselves.
"When a storm comes up, for example, cattle will turn their backs to the wind and run as fast as they can, to try to run away from the storm," DuBray says. "But the buffalo will stand there and face into the wind. That shows people that you should be like the buffalo and face your problems instead of trying to run away from them."
And instead of overgrazing the best grass in a pasture, buffalo eat nearly every variety of prairie plant and keep moving, DuBray says. In the winter, they can get all the moisture they require from snow, while cattle need unfrozen water.
"When I was first planning this project, one of the elders says something that stuck with me," DuBray says. "He says that before you bring the buffalo back you must ask the buffalo if they want to come back.
"There are other places where people are raising buffalo in feedlots, sawing their horns off. . . . Buffalo need a lot of room to develop in a herd situation. If they had to come back to standing around in a feedlot, then it's not realistic to think they would want to come back."