There were plenty of other species that were endangered or threatened and it occurred to me that I could become involved with black footed ferrets, eagles, swift fox, or any number of insects or grasses. But over the proceeding eighteen years I had learned that concentrating on a single species was only treating the symptom of a problem. The cause of a species’ distress was almost always a compromised ecosystem. I sat on my porch contemplating the rest of my life and I recalled much of what I had seen while I traveled back and forth across the High Plains. Blowing top soil, stinking feedlots, subsidized crops irrigated with precious water, and all the ancient, non-human inhabitants forced to eke out a living on the edges. The stars came up, and because it was autumn, Orion rose in the gap between Bear Butte and the Black Hills. It was one of those magic nights when time seems to slow to the speed of moving constellations.
My thoughts came to buffalo. They have long been an icon of this waning wilderness. During the last half of the nineteenth century, in one of the great human disgraces of all time, we slaughtered all but perhaps a thousand of the world’s buffalo - for sport, a few body parts, and to help decimate the Natives. We nearly lost a unique species that thrived only in the center of the American continent. I thought hard about that as I sat on the front porch with a million stars moving across the sky in front of me. It made me sick to think of the injustice and before Orion’s sword had swiveled to point at Harney Peak, I knew that my future would involve at least an attempt to put things right on the Great Plains and that buffalo would be part of that attempt.
In the nearly twenty years since that decision, I have done my best to heal the portion of the northern grasslands for which I am most responsible, and in that time I have come to some conclusions: One of those conclusions is that if bison are to return to their natural haunts, they will have to pay their own way. The task is immense. No individual, well-intentioned non-profit, or government agency has the financial capacity to handle the job without the help of the bison’s old nemesis - capitalism.
I hate this fact. After all, unbridled capitalism is one of the big reasons for the devastation of bison, native grass, other native animals, and native peoples. So it is difficult not to see my “realization” about capitalism on the Great Plains as “capitulation”.
But all that is good and natural about the Great Plains is not going to come back with simply good intentions on the part of a few people. If we are ever to have a chance at putting things right we will have to be smart, creative, industrious, and willing to sacrifice - not only sacrifices of time, labor, and money - but also sacrifices of our closely held beliefs. We owe it to the bison to be more than sentimental idealist or inflexible ideologues. We owe brave and selfless action to the bison - we owe it to ourselves.
It took all the power of the nineteenth century to bring the bison to the edge of extinction. It will take the most powerful force of the twenty-first century to bring them back. I say turn capitalism against itself. Lakota belief tells us that the covenant between buffalo and humans has always been one of kinship. Out here we have always believed that if we care for the bison, they will care of us. In the twenty-first century, care of bison means helping them find space to move and native grass to eat - care of humans means connecting them to their wild roots. Bison have always bartered their hides and meat for human respect and kinship.
We must never turn bison into just another commodity. But for welfare of us all, we should celebrate and facilitate the bison’s dignity, uniqueness, and indeed their very flesh as a sort of sacrament that can finally bring every person on Earth to a new way of honoring and valuing the ecosystem of the free-roaming bison. This day, and this modest museum, is a good place to begin the revolution - back to sanity. I am proud to be a part of it. Thank you.