In South Dakota, a Buffalo Herd Thrives in Cattle Country

Land grant universities whose research supports the beef industry are funded in part by land stolen from Indigenous tribes.

Three bison
Credit: Mike Corter

Reported Food Industry

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Everytime Bamm Brewer kills a buffalo, he says a prayer thanking the animal for their sacrifice, and asking for protection. “Whenever you get there,” the prayer usually concludes, “can you carry a message to our relatives in the spirit world?” An Oglala Lakota living on the Pine Ridge Reservation, Brewer has been caring for the reservation’s buffalo herd in the southwestern corner of South Dakota for 30 years. In that time, the herd has nearly tripled in size, growing from 25 individual buffalo to, now, 70. For Brewer, the buffalo are not just a herd of animals, but a way to reclaim the health and culture of his people — a sharp contrast to the way cattle are treated on most industrial feedlots.

Beef production is big business in South Dakota, providing more than $1 billion out of the $10 billion that all of South Dakota agriculture rakes in. There are approximately 1 million beef cattle at any given time in the state, according to South Dakota State University, which is as well funded as it is today thanks, in part, to land taken from Indigenous tribes.

Life on Pine Ridge Reservation is difficult, by many measures. The average life expectancy on the reservation is only 66.8 years — the lowest in the country. The average income is under $9,000, and the official poverty rate tops 53 percent. Less than a third of residents have a high school diploma or GED, and the teenage suicide rate is 150 percent that of the country at large.

Brewer sees his herd of 70 buffalo as one solution to what his tribe faces today, all of which stem from a history of colonialism that deprived the Lakota from their ancestral traditions. With the herd, he is reintroducing a traditional food source, both for his family and his community.

Conditions today can be traced back to policies laid out hundreds of years ago. These policies shifted ownership of federal lands to newly formed states. The problem is that those lands often didn’t belong to the U.S. government, but had already been granted by federal lawmakers to Indigenous tribes, including the Great Sioux Nation — from whom Oglala Lakotas, including Bamm Brewer, descend. Figuring for inflation, that land has generated more than $335 billion in agricultural revenue for the entities that own the land today.

A significant portion of that land is held in trust, not for Indigenous tribes, but for public universities. In the case of the Oglala Lakota Tribe, more than 140,000 acres of their ancestral lands — over 47,500 surface acres plus more than 100,000 acres for mining, oil or other subsurface use — were stolen and placed into trust to benefit six different land-grant universities, according to document analysis carried out by Grist. Each of these universities devotes much of its budget to funding research that supports industrial agriculture, which is responsible for around 11 percent of our country’s greenhouse gas emissions, and more than a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions. While the tribe was given a few dollars per acre for some of that land, thousands of acres were taken with no reimbursement at all.

In South Dakota, Beef (and Beef Research) Is Big Business

Among the universities reaping the financial benefits of Lakota land is South Dakota State University, which in 2022 had a permanent trust fund of $9.6 million, supported by revenue from the land, along with other sources. The university’s agricultural experiment extensions enjoyed an additional $1.8 million in trust funds that year. The largest of the extension’s eight campuses, which spans 2,640 acres, is dedicated to researching beef.

South Dakota is not a natural home for cattle, yet the state has the 8th largest herd in the country. The ancestors of modern bovine likely hailed from the region that today spreads across Iran and Turkey — a part of the world with relatively mild weather with temperatures in the winter dropping to 38F and peaking around 85F in the summer. South Dakota, on the other hand, is a land of extremes — winter lows drop into the teens while temperatures pass 100F in the summer.

The agriculture extension department at SDSU, which has 8 research stations spread across the state on land that Ogalal Lakota ancestors once freely roamed and stewarded, today develops tools and solutions for cattle feedlots, including metrics for increasing feed for cold-stressed cattle. Other tools include implant technology for increasing carcass weight and reducing costs associated with replacement heifers.

A group of bison in South Dakota
Credit: One Spirit

Bison Once Roamed By the Millions

Millions of buffalo once roamed the Great Plains. These animals are well suited to the wide spectrum of weather in South Dakota. During the winter, they grow a thick wooly coat which protects them from the frigid temperatures. By the end of the spring they’ve shed their wool and instead sport a thinner, lighter coat.

Originally nomadic, the Oglala Lakotas’ ancestors would follow buffalo herds across the Great Plains — an area that became North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and chunks of various other states. By the late 19th century, most bison were slaughtered, leaving only around 1000 of these massive creatures and tribe members were pushed onto ever-dwindling reservations.

Today the Oglala Tribe has just one small corner of South Dakota to call home. As the tribe’s ancestors were forced to settle in one place, they became disconnected from Indigenous ways of caring for buffalo, and over time began eating more beef and other foods introduced by colonizers.

In 1963, a small herd of 50 buffalo was reintroduced to South Dakota’s Badlands National Park, a park that likely gets its name from the Lakota tribe. Since then, millions have been spent on maintaining and growing that herd, along with other buffalo conservation efforts across the country. Last year, the Department of Interior announced $25 million to support restoring buffalo populations nationally, including some larger Indigenous-led ranching efforts that number into the hundreds.

At the beginning of 2023, South Dakota was home to around 40,000 buffalo.

A Localized and Lakota-centric Food System

Today at Pine Ridge, the community struggles to get people eating healthy food. “Traditionally and historically, there was no such thing as diabetes [among the Lakota],” says Jeri Baker, who runs One Spirit, a non-profit that works on sustainable food solutions for the community. Yet today, says Baker, diabetes is the norm. “Almost everyone on the reservation either has, is at risk of, or has someone in their family with diabetes,” Baker says.

Through One Spirit, Baker is working to boost access to healthier, locally produced food. Right now, that mostly means outside foods, says Baker, especially fresh produce and other unprocessed foods. But the organization is providing the resources tribal members need to start their own gardens.

Brewer sees raising and sourcing from a small herd of buffalo on the reservation as one way of addressing the tribe’s persistent health issues. Raising his children to consume buffalo meat instead of beef has become a way to reconnect to his Lakota heritage. Because there are so few of these animals, Brewer says he’s unaware of anyone overconsuming. It’s a stark contrast with the way beef is produced and consumed in the U.S. at scale — 12.9 million pounds per year, more beef than any other nation on earth.

Suffice to say, this way of caring for and consuming buffalo isn’t scalable. With just 70 buffalo to tend to, Brewer can pay close attention to each one — both how the animal is raised and how it’s killed. “I try to make friends with them,” says Brewer. “People say that [the buffalo] can take care of themselves; they took care of our people a long time ago, and we gotta take care of them now.”

“Buffalo is very sacred to our people,” Brewer points out. The tribe members view buffalo as their family. When he first took his herd to be processed at a traditional slaughterhouse, he was disturbed by what he experienced. Loud noise, the stench of blood, bolt guns and processing lines to rip meat from the animal all feature prominently at slaughterhouses — a far cry from how the Lakota engage with buffalo in the animals’ final moments.

On the tribal lands, Brewer is able to kill buffalo in the field — ending their lives where they lived to spare them from the stress of being transported.

The process of killing a buffalo starts before he’s even in the field, when he prays for the animal. The Lakota tribe believes that the buffalo anticipates his death even before the hunters’ first shot. As the animal breathes its last “a doorway opens into the spirit world” through which the buffalo will go and carry messages to relatives and friends already there. As a final step, the hunters split and consume the buffalo’s liver and the bile it produces, as that’s “his purification,” says Brewer, “so when we kill him we purify ourselves the same way he does.”

This story was produced using data obtained through Grist’s Land Grab University investigation.

This article utilizes the term “buffalo” throughout to refer to the American bison — an animal whose name changed as a result of colonialism, but which some Indigenous groups have different terms for based upon the characteristics of the individual animal.

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