Efforts to bring back the near-extinct plains bison, or buffalo, to Western Canada honours a part of Canadian history many Canadians are either unaware of, or have forgotten—that these gigantic, majestic animals once ruled the Northern Great Plains in the tens of millions and were a source of sustenance and spirituality for plains-dwelling Métis and First Nations.
First Nations people hunted bison on both sides of the border for survival, stripping their carcasses clean, using every part to make winter clothing, food, tools and knives and ceremonial gear. During the mid to late 19th century, Red River Métis on the central Canadian Prairies developed an entire community structure and economy based on bison hunting.
Often referred to as “walking department stores” for their plentiful bounty, bison roamed free for thousands of years and inspired sacred legends and ceremonies for generations. Much of that disappeared by the turn of the 20th century when bison herds were driven to near extinction by European-driven overhunting and expansion of the frontier that choked off their life-sustaining grasslands. As a result, an entire way of life was disrupted and some First Nations communities signed treaties to move to reserves.
Conservationists in Canada and America are achieving a dream to restore the Great Plains ecosystem by re-introducing the continent's largest land mammal, the plains bison, in small herds to roam freely in large fenced preserves or in remote areas. Two hundred and thirty Canadian bison have been moved from Elk Island National Park to Montana, where their ancestors came from. Canada bought the last remaining herds of bison from a Montana rancher in 1907 in a conservation arrangement that established a long-term breeding population of bison at Elk Island National Park. The transfer marks a full-circle journey and conservation success story.
Today, bison still have spiritual and cultural significance for many First Nations and Métis people, one that will surely grow with the return of thundering hooves across the Prairie landscape.