BOW VALLEY –Bison were reintroduced to Banff National Park two years ago, after more than a century and a half absence from the land, and their cultural importance is not going unnoticed.
“This is where Stoneys would come into the area and camp – the park has a cultural and spiritual importance to Stoney Nakoda,” Bill Snow, consultant with Stoney Tribal Administration said during a presentation at the Whyte Museum on May 9.
Explaining the connection between the bison, the land and traditional names, Snow presented to a crowd talking about the history of bison on the land, the Stoney Nakoda’s own bison reintroduction program in the ‘70s and how Parks Canada has been working with the Nation for the Banff bison reintroduction.
With roots in the Bow Valley dating back more than 10,000 years, it is known bison, also known as buffalo, used to live the National parks and mountains providing a source of food, clothing and shelter for Indigenous people in the area.
“The buffalo has ensured the survival of human beings, vegetation and other wildlife, just by being on landscapes” Snow wrote in his presentation.
Stoney Nakoda Nation, compromised of three bands Chiniki, Bearspaw and Wesley, started their own bison reintroduction program after they regained self-governance and in 1970, officials set aside land and brought a herd from Elk Island.
The herd is at approximately 90 bison now.
“There are stories, songs and ceremonies attached,” Snow explained at the talk.
Successfully reintroducing bison to the land lead to a reconnection to culture with programs and classes in the Morley Schools now teaching youth about the history and importance of bison.
Then in 2015 the government came together with the Nation to sign the Buffalo Treaty at Banff Indian Days in Banff with Bearspaw, Chiniki, Wesley and the Samson Cree First Nation signing. The purpose and objective of the treaty is to “honor, recognize and revitalize the time immemorial relationship we have with buffalo.”
The Buffalo: A Treaty of Cooperation, Renewal and Restoration outlines the collective to recognize the bison as a “wild free-ranging animal and as an important part of the ecological system” promising to provide a safe space and realize the “buffalo ways for our future generations.”
Highlighted areas included conservation, culture, economics, health, education, research, adhesions, and partnership and supporters.
“The bison treaty was very important. It was a way of bringing all the different bands together ... and we made sure to do the signing in a culturally appropriate way,” Snow said.
After the treaty was signed Parks continued to work with the Nation moving forward with recognizing and honouring the importance of the bison, and a year later a ceremony was conducted at Tunnel Mountain to rename the mountain to a traditional name.
After much discussion with elders about origin and spiritual stories, the Nation decided to name the mountain Eyarhey Tatanga Woweyahgey Wakân, translated in English to Sacred Buffalo Guardian Mountain.
“We talked with the elders and they wanted to do a ceremony and we worked with Parks Canada to do a ceremony and a sweat lodge,” Snow said.
“We didn’t want to pick one story over another so that is how we came up with Sacred Buffalo Guardian Mountain.”
And the most recent piece to recognizing the importance of the bison was placed when Parks announced the $6.6 million reintroduction plan to Panther Valley.
“Parks has taken a couple of approaches, they did a reintroduction in the 90s that wasn’t successful – they didn’t consult the First Nations groups,” Snow explained.
“When Stoney did theirs, it was a cultural reconnection to the land and I think Parks understands the cultural side now.”
Before the Elk Island herd was transferred to Panther Valley, Stoney Nakoda Nation, Samson Cree, Blackfoot Confederacy and other First Nations, traveled to the Island to conduct a bison reintroduction blessing ceremony with prayers spoken and songs sung, giving their blessings to the bison before the herd even started their journey.
“Stoney Nakoda has been very support of the project since the start,” Snow said.
Loaded into special containers and driven through the night as a convoy to the Ya Ha Tinda Ranch, on the edge of Banff National Park, early the next morning a helicopter transported the containers to their new home in Panther Valley.
Included in the new herd were 10 pregnant females who gave birth to nine calves, resulting in 26 bison in February 2017.
“We knew there’d be problems, it’s why we did ceremonies,” Snow explained noting there have been a couple of bison roaming away from the herd with one euthanized last August.
Since the reintroduction the Banff herd has grown to more than 35 with the bison roaming on mountains and valleys, “exploring and understanding the landscape they are in.”
“Stoney will continue to work with Parks Canada on the continued monitoring of the Buffalo in the area over the next couple of years,” Snow said.
The project timeline finishes in 2022, where Parks Canada will assess whether to continue or abandon the project.
“The Buffalo Treaty, the reintroduction, the renaming are all intertwined,” Snow said. “When we put bison back on the landscapes there is a really big impact.”