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Meet Our Native American Sourcing Partners

By, Jill O’Brien

This essay is our second profile on our sourcing partners.

Our sourcing relationship with the Rosebud Sioux Tribe started over 15 years ago. At the time, our method of field harvesting was to put the animal down in the pasture and then haul it to town to be processed. This was done under state inspection, allowing us two hours from bullet to refrigerator. When our Native American friends and neighbors came to us and asked if we would harvest for them, we couldn’t offer help, as there wasn’t a processing facility close enough to their location to meet the regulated guidelines.

We were empathetic with their need, as our harvesting model was based on Native American traditions of respecting the animals and not subjecting them to the modern day, industrialized feedlot and slaughterhouse, system. From this initial request, along with our own growing needs, the mobile harvest unit was built. We were now able to take this mobile processing facility, complete with refrigeration, to very rural places.

When our mobile harvest truck pulled into the pasture of the Rosebud Indian Reservation and harvested the first buffalo, there were tears of joy. Their prior options had been limited and were not in keeping with Native values and traditions.

There was a prayer to the four directions, smudging of the rifle and hands, and an offering of tobacco after the animal was put down. Although we're not Native, the smudging and tobacco offering are done by our crew at every harvest.

The Rosebud Sioux Tribe's buffalo herd is owned by the Sinte Gleska University on the Rosebud Reservation. This small university is on the outer edge of Mission, SD. It had been a long time since I had visited, so a few months ago, on a day when we were harvesting, I drove down to visit with them and to see how things were going.

I was greeted by Shawn Bordeaux, who gave me a tour of his officewhich was more of a maze, with almost every surface piled high with books and papers. Maps covered the walls, and beautiful Native American art was tucked here and there. Shawn stood in front of one of the maps and pointed out the Native sovereign lands. He talked about the Gregory, Trip and Millet County Act of 1910 & 1911a land grab that "surplused" over a million of their acres. He said that all of Todd county was still all reservation land and that the other green dots on the map outside Todd county remained sovereign tribal lands.

He showed me photos of his family, including a card with Swift Bear, Red Cloud (who he's related to through his great, great, great grandma Nancy Blue Eyes) and Spotted Tail, whose name translates to Sinte Gleska.  Shawn is a SD state legislator and wears many other hats for the university and communityexplaining the chaotic nature of his office.

We then moved on to meet Phil Baird, the Provost and COO of the university, and Wilma Bearshield Robertson, a new member of their staff who has a masters degree in Lakota Leadership. We sat at a round table and fell into sort of a Q & A conversation. The answers were long, which is typical of native culture and spurred laughter throughout my visit on who had the best gift of gab. Here are snippets of the visit:

Q: When was the university founded and what’s your current enrollment?

A: Phil - It was chartered in December of 1970 and we were teaching by February of 1971. Our enrollment is anywhere between 700 to 1,200 students ranging from grandmas to grandkids.

Q: What are the founding principles of the university?

A: Phil - The university is based on four pillars that promote educational, cultural, nutritional and economic development.  

Q: How do the bison fit into the university?

A: Shawn – The bison have helped the university be the catalyst for the community. They bring yesterday’s culture and today’s culture together to help us learn and grow so we are not lost.

Q: Does the university offer a bison management program?

A: Phil – We do not like to use the word management, as we do not manage our brothers and sisterswe care for them, so we use the word caretaker. We are in the process of putting a curriculum in place for a short course. It will include wildlife and range caretaking.

Q: How big is your herd now?

A: Phil – We now have around 1,000 animals. This is where the harvesting helps keep the animal numbers in check with the land. But, buffalo make more buffalo and even with the harvesting we still have too many for our current grazing acreage. We just acquired Mustang Meadows, the former ranch of retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner. It’s 30,000 acres and we are all very excited about the potential of this ranch. We’ll be moving the buffalo there soon, and we hope to also offer a short field course on buffalo caretaking for students to receive an 18-month certificate.

Q: Sothe bison are paying their way?

A: Shawn – The buffalo are earning their keep.

Phil – We're not in the bison industry for the commercialization of it. Our indigenous philosophy is that these are spiritual beings. We don’t want to poke or prod them, we don’t break up the family structure, we keep the old grandmas as they are the teachers. This is why we like working with Wild Idea and the field harvest method.

Shawn – We also can’t pay big salaries in our community, and our nutrition on the reservation is not good but we can help put food on the table.

Q: But, buffalo do bring in economic dollars that you can reinvest into the school and the kids?

A: Shawn – Oh, for sure. Another project we are working on is a Traditional Arts Studio. Many of the classes offered will be based on the use of the buffalo.

Shawn slides a brochure my way and opens it to the courses that will be taught, which include: hide tanning, drum making, hide painting, bone and horn carving, and food preparation.  

Q: We’ve talked a lot about the university, but what do the bison mean to you personally?

A: Wilma – Humbleness, respect, substance and pride. When I drive by the herd I am overwhelmed with these emotions. I have witnessed a harvest and have seen the buffalo give themselves, as they know it is their day. They give themselves to care for us and we care for them.

Phil and Shawn nod their heads and all eyes are filled with tears. These views may not be for everyone, but to me they seem about as right as any other.

Three hours later we headed out to the pasture to catch Ty Colombe, the current buffalo herd caretaker, and the harvest crewbut they had wrapped for the day and were gone. We did find the buffalo herd, though, and pulled in to say hello and thank you. 

As I drove home with my heart full, reflecting on the day "Indian Lover" popped into my mind. "Indian Lover" is a derogatory term that I had heard as a kid when my mother worked for the Wiconi (life) Project for the tribes in Rapid City. Most of her co-workers were Native American and they were also our friends. On weekends our families would gather together for picnics in the park, and often we would hear "Indian Lover" called out from a passerbyer. "Indian Lover" I thought—I’m good with that.

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32 comments

  • Thank you for this great article, Jill. This is why I feel so solid about buying product from Wild Idea- it’s about people as much as buffalo. Funny, I forgot “Indian Lover” until you mentioned it. My mother earned that name. She took us from Chicago to an Ojibway reservation in northern Minnesota to get “out of the rat race.” She contributed to the community more than I knew as a selfish teen. When she was killed in an accident by drunk driving teens (not from the res), we were shell-shocked and not sure what to do with the body, the house, and so on- we were really still kids with no adult help. The local people started to call and ask if we would have a service where they could pay their respects. We were pretty traumatized, but learned our manners young, so my brother and I stepped up and brought photographs of her to a makeshift memorial arranged at a church. People brought gifts of beaver meat chili and jam and dreamcatchers and stories about her work with the community. I learned only a few years ago in Washington State’s government-to-government training that native peoples, despite terrible oppression by whites, will accept newcomers who contribute to the community. I never understood their kindness to us then, but gained a new perspective (and as I know more history, increasing amazement at their generosity). Of course, my mother’s reputation in the neighboring white town was “Indian Lover”, a term even used at a time of terrible grief. That’s where I last heard it, and no, I have never been back, thirty years on. Thank you again for the wonderful work you do- it’s hard to feel good about anything nowadays, but I feel good supporting this phenomenal effort.

    Monica Van der Vieren
  • Thank you. That’s all, just thank you, you lovely, wondrous Indian lovers! :-)

    Laura Culley
  • It has meant so much to us to be in the meeting with Shawn (through your presence) and to hear that the traditions and culture are still being kept, guarded, and passed on to future generations. This was a beautiful time with you as you listened and questioned and we all learned of this special people, their university, and of their desire to be caretakers of the bison and the land. We look forward to more of these experiences as you have the chance to share them with us.

    Jerry & Norma Reynolds
  • State wildlife agencies could learn a thing or two about the concept of Care taking vs. management from the Lakota. Thanks Jill for the insight.

    Emil Stockton
  • I’ve been an Indian Lover since I was a kid – No thought involved, that was just the way I felt. Still do. Good on you, Jill!

    Liz Aicher
  • WOW, didn’t know all of that. As an old retirred university professor, I was really struck by the size and activities at Sinte Gleska University . Next time out, I will have to pay a visit. Thanks Jill for shaaring. Happy Holidays from the North Georgia mountains.

    Bill Day
  • My acceptance, by my American Indian brothers and sisters, would not have been complete, without them enveloping my children, with love and care. My Rosebud sister, the departed Rosemond Goins (also Executive Director of Wiconi and my boss) always introduced Jill (my daughter), as her niece. Such were the family ties inherent, in any close association with and acceptance of Indian culture. The friendships, that I made then, are among the strongest that I have today. That was not a “job,” per se; it was an opportunity to be useful. I carried that over, into my work with the Akimel O’dham and Tohono O’dham people, in Arizona. It has been an honor, to have had those opportunities.
    I am so glad that you still remember those days, Jill.

    Georgene
  • You fill my heart

    Dan Cohen
  • Jill,

    Thanks. I am an “Indian Lover” too.

    Do you know if the folks at the University know about Khanacademy.org? It is an awesome FREE resource that Bill Gates’ kids and our grandkids use.

    All that is needed for access is a Gmail account. There are thousands of videos and tutorials on chemistry, biology, math, history, computer programming and more.

    It is now the official practice site for all of the Advanced Placement courses. It also has the sample SAT test plus other “professional” sample tests for Medical, Nursing, Business, and Engineering.

    I am not employed by Khan Academy nor have I ever been. I am merely a “self-appointed”, enthusiastic advocate because I have seen what it does for my grandkids and others.

    Please let me know if questions or if my wife and I can be of any help. Thanks.

    Bruce Green
  • It was wonderful to read this. It’s very inspirational to understand how WIB works with Native people and weaves their values into your business operations. Loved the preference of caretaking versus management of Buffalo. Jill, thank you very much.

    Paul Knowles
  • Thank you, what a wonderful article. I was curious to hear that they had just acquired the former ranch of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, that is a story I would love to know!!

    Ellen Olander
  • Jill,

    I was moved to tears by your experience and your article. Saying thank you isn’t enough. I will share this with many friends. It is time Native spritutualiy and values took its rightful place in our society. It may take a few generations., but it is happening, thanks to people like you and Dan. I will always remember my 2 visits to your ranch in 2004, one with my husband Richard ( I had met Dan as he signed Buffalo for the Broken Heart for me at a TNC annual meeting where I asked about a visit for us two photographers and he wrote, “Come take pictures.”) and one alone when Gervais took me on a long horseback ride. My husband is now deceased, and I look back on our time at the ranch as one of our great photo experiences together. See some images Richard’s memorial site www.richadjohnson photographer.com. The Bison and Badlands sectio. Looking forward to many more wonderful newsletters. Linda Huhn, Minneapolis

    Linda Huhn
  • Thank you for these moving words: a tribute to the buffalo and the Native American culture.

    Kathy Antonen
  • As always, thanks for sharing.. this piece in particular resonates, because of the respect for the Buffalo and the dignity shown in death. Wish all your family and support team peaceful holiday.

    Holly Hopper
  • Good to read this. My uncle, Fr. John Bryde, was the head of Red Cloud School and taught me and my nine siblings to value our “Indian” brothers and sisters. It is through him that I came to know Madonna Bluehorse who lived with us in Seattle while she completed her nursing education. She often spoke of the college and what it stood for.

    John Talevich

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