Annual Bison Gathering ‘an honour’, say Tsuut’ina Nation members


It’s hard to miss the sounds of the annual Tsuut’ina Nation bison roundup, just southwest of Calgary.

Thunderous noises pierce the air as the giant animals smash their way through the corral – a system of roofless metal chutes – leaping so high their entire heads can be seen from the ground.

Volunteers open and close a series of metal gates from a wooden walkway above as each buffalo is persuaded through the system. They are dewormed, weighed and, at the last stop, the doors of a crush are lowered to hold the animal in place for branding and vaccination.

Everything only takes a few minutes. But when the gates open, each buffalo sprints away, its hooves hitting the ground as it returns to the rest of the herd.

“It’s a good adrenaline rush to work with these guys. They’re such unpredictable and naturally wild animals,” said Clayton Whitney, who manages the Tsuut’ina bison paddock.

“It’s definitely a stressful time of year to get them through and process them safely through the system.”

Buffaloes have roamed a 485-hectare patch of land in the heart of the Tsuut’ina Nation for over 40 years. Every November, they are gathered to be cared for. Some are also separated for sale to keep herd numbers manageable.

Animals provide benefits to the land, but they also create an important connection to the past for the First Nations community.

A bison waits to be inspected at the Tsuut’ina paddock in November. (James Young/CBC)

Millions of bison — which are also known by their scientific name, bison — once roamed freely across North America, providing food, hides and spiritual meaning to their ancestors, says Elder Tsuut’ina Harley Crowchild.

“As far as I know, they’ve been here since Tsuut’ina was here,” he said.

Overhunting drove the animals to near extinction around 1890, according to a Parks Canada report. Conservation efforts began soon after, the report said, with the agency working to restore both conservation and cultural bison herds.

In 1976, Crowchild worked with then-Chief Clifford Big Plume and several community members to petition Parks Canada to bring a herd of bison back to Tsuut’ina lands.

“There was a time when our people survived on bison,” he said. “I think it’s very important to keep any culture, any tradition.”

clayton whitney
Clayton Whitney has worked at the Tsuut’ina Nation bison paddock for nearly eight years. (James Young/CBC)

Jonathan DeMoor, conservation team leader at Elk Island National Park, said he delivered 30 plains bison from the park to the nation in 1980, in one of several similar transfers to Indigenous communities.

“Transferring bison to Indigenous communities allows Parks Canada to maintain a healthy herd with sufficient pasture, while protecting plant communities and rangelands for other species,” he said in a statement.

“Parks Canada is committed to working with Indigenous communities to relocate bison to strengthen Indigenous connections to their history and culture and to support bison-related socio-economic opportunities.

The agency also manages several wild conservation herds, including one in Banff National Park.

The Tsuut’ina herd has grown from 30 in 1980 to around 370 today. It’s a stat Whitney says she’s proud of, having now looked after the herd for nearly eight years.

“It’s just an honor to be a part of them and to work with them and to know how they looked after our ancestors for, you know, hundreds and hundreds of years,” he said. .

“So I think it’s our turn to deal with them and get… the numbers back to where they were at the time.”

Year-round, says Whitney, they use rotational grazing, which means they’ll keep the buffaloes moving to give the grass and dirt a chance to heal.

The nation also harvests buffaloes to provide meat to the community. They distributed a portion to almost every household last year to help them through the pandemic.

“It’s kind of neat to see…that the meat is being distributed to the members and they’re eating the meat that they were, their ancestors ate,” Whitney said.

Portions of the buffalo are also used in different ceremonies, such as sun dances and naming rituals.

“Every part of bison was used by our people long ago,” Crowchild said. “People are really happy because different families, they want to use the buffalo [in] ceremonies for their families.

buffalo vaccination
Community members from the Tsuut’ina Nation work to vaccinate a buffalo during the annual roundup. (James Young/CBC)

It’s also a community effort to keep the bison herd healthy. At the roundup, several volunteers join the four permanent staff to help each year, working to ensure that each animal is sorted and inspected.

Once released to pasture, they will be given regular hay through the winter, with staff closely monitoring their health.

Spring is calving season.

Whitney says it feels good to see bison roaming the land again.

“If we had enough land for them, I would like to see them, in the future, see them dispersed to different parts of the country and even encourage other reserves to bring them back to their country and see them come back to the land. .where they belong.”

Crowchild says he hopes the bison will remain a constant for Indigenous communities in Canada.

“He should stay with our people until the end of time,” he said.

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