Bison Times

Bison Times

Long ago, the average Blackfeet man ate 3-7 pounds of bison meat each day. That was back in an age of plentiful game, when up to 60 million buffalo thundered across the open plains. “There was no want, no hunger,” says Woody Kipp, a Blackfeet teacher and journalist. His people supplemented their diet with chokecherries, turnips and berries that grew beneath Montana’s Big Sky. “We didn’t grow any grains. No grains.”

Then everything changed.

Settlers came and the animals nearly disappeared. A particularly harsh winter left thousands dead and starving. “That was the last of the buffalo,” Kipp says. “The diet changed so rapidly overnight.” When the earth thawed, non-Indians “started bringing the food up the Missouri—flour and bacon. Things we weren’t used to.”

That sudden shift from high-protein meals to large quantities of carbohydrates led to “an era of destitution,” according to University of Minnesota scholar Michael Wise. “Constrained within their reservation boundaries and no longer able to produce their own subsistence by hunting, the Blackfeet would soon have to sell their labor for government rations—mostly beef,” he writes in his 2011 article “Colonial Beef and the Blackfeet Reservation Slaughterhouse, 1879-1895.”

The federal government established beef slaughterhouses on the Blackfeet Reservation in northern Montana as a means to “transform the Blackfeet from hunters to herders, from barbaric predators…to civilized producers,” according to Wise. He calls it a form of “food colonialism” as part of federal assimilation policy.

The Blackfeet still rely on government rations today, says Kipp, who lives and teaches in the reservation town of Browning. Poverty rates are high, and so is unemployment. The Blackfeet Nation covers 1.5 million acres—an average of nearly 200 acres per person living there. But farming is not part of his people’s culture, Kipp says. They can no longer hunt, so “they get welfare instead.”

Nationwide, American Indians face high rates of obesity and other diet-related diseases. American Indians and Alaska Natives are 2.2 times more likely to have diabetes than non-Hispanic whites, according to the American Diabetes Association.

There is some effort to revive Blackfeet bison, which is more nutritious than beef. Local restaurants serve buffalo burgers and stew. And fans point to the meat’s lower fat content.  Plus, Kipp says, “you don’t need $300,000 in hay and equipment” to raise buffalo.

But the Blackfeet Nation suffers more than a loss of its traditional herds.  As Wise writes, “history itself seemed to collapse” with the transformation of tribal food and work. Ever since, Kipp says, something has changed in the Blackfeet mindset. He speaks of sovereignty and cultural revival. But modern life presents a dilemma.

“You cannot take food stamps and sovereignty at the same time,” Kipp says. “It doesn’t work.”

Bison Times

See more at Rambling Spoon.

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When she’s not running up mountains or sweating through a buggy jungle, Karen Coates covers food, environment, science, health and social issues. She is a 2010-2011 Ted Scripps Fellow in Environ ...read more

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