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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  • From 2003 to 2005, I lived on the Cheyenne River Reservation in Eagle Butte while having the privilege of being employed by Catholic Social Services of Rapid City. Thanks to the friends I made there, the perspective I had hoped to gain by going far surpassed all the hopes I had for learning more about the Lakota People and their buffalo. Thank you for writing and publishing this article – it has awakened many fond memories and the urge to go back! Have a happy New Year and many thanks.

    Mary Anne Nulty
  • I really enjoyed this article and it brings smiles to my heart. Thank you.

    Greg Adams
  • Initially, I fell in love with eating the greatest, healthiest red meat in the world. And then I fell in love with your ethics and “humanity”, for the buffalo and the people who nurture them.
    Thank you.

  • Thank you so much for all you do and for sharing this with us. There is so much we can learn from our Native people!

    Pat O'Brien
  • I was living and working for two years on Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. I was working with the US Public Health Service, as a pharmacist and laboratory officer at the outpatient facility in McLaughlin, SD. I had the pleasure and privilege of making many good friends there among the proud and honorable Sioux people. We saw very few bison at that time (1969-1971). It seems that if enough of them get together, they will simply flatten every fence in their path. I was able to see the impact of the loss of the great bison herds, and the impact on not only the land, but upon its indigenous people. Sad part of US history.

    Dan Helton
  • Jill, what a beautiful article. You are a wonderful writer as well as chef, photographer, and caretaker. Thank you for all you contribute to our community and our prairie.

    Jane Murphy
  • Great article Jill.

    David Thoreson
  • I read this aloud to my wife, and tears flowed. Bless you and all who work with you for how you honor the Native Americans and their traditions. Aside from them, we are all immigrants.

  • I agree with that also.
    Thanks and MERRY CHRISTMAS

    Richard Hennings
  • Very astute and awesome article and interview Jill, Thanks for posting. I have/had an idea for a novel of fiction of which both buffalo and Native Americans were characters. At a book signing I had a chance to ask Russell Means, Actor,Author and Indian Activist what he thought about Whites writing about Indians. He answered me honestly. He believed in the freedom of expression fervently. He would not tell me not to write such, He just wouldn’t read it! As he has passed and my work is still unfinished to say nothing of published, he was right!
    The key to all cultural interaction is mutual respect.

    Kenneth James
  • This is SO moving and incredible ! just great… As I said in 2 emails to Jilian, I will be coming from France to SD in June and would love to come and see you ; I am dying for an answer but I understand it might take several days because you are all very busy ; but I hope you will answer me and that I will meet you ; Merry Xmas to you all !

  • I have always been an Indian lover and I don’t know why. I am more interested as I grow older.
    Thank you for this article!

    Kathleen Jankowski
  • Several years ago, some friends and I read “Buffalo for the Broken Heart” and we were all moved by the concept of the right animals for the prairie. And then we went for a mission trip on the Rosebud. While we were there we drove over to your ranch and Ernie took us on a tour. That day remains a bright spot in my heart and I order bison and smell South Dakota as I cook. Thanks for all that you do.

    Beth Maschino
  • Thank you, Jill! That was an emotional read for me. I, too am a proud “Indian lover” and have been since an early age. Ditto on all the positive comments from all the other enlightened writers of these comments.
    I have always purchased WIB bison meat because of your and Dan’s dedication to the health of the prairie and its inhabitants, human or not, but now I have even more reason to purchase WIB sustenance in the hope that I can contribute to the well being of the animals and humans that have learned to coexist on our holy lands together.
    Thank you for all the wonderful things WIB does for all of us believers in your calling. God bless you.

    Martin Dourte
  • And to think that after a million acres of Native American lands were taken away from them…today, we think nothing of it! It was as if it was all part of “making America great” at the expense of indigenous peoples.

    Douglas Shearer

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