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Denver works to earn trust and donates bison to Tribal Nations
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On Wed. March 15, the City and County of Denver donated 35 bison to Tribal Nations. 

GOLDEN, Colo. — The sound of pounding hooves and the huffing of 35 bison echoed in Golden as Denver's donation to Indigenous Tribes echoed back to the way life looked here for thousands of years. 

Wednesday morning, 17 bison were presented to the Northern Arapaho Nation in Wyoming, 12 to the Eastern Shoshone Nation in Wyoming and five to the Yuchi Nation in Oklahoma. One more bison will be given to the Tall Bull Memorial Council in Colorado. 

“We read a land acknowledgement which talks about honoring the people who lived here historically– the Utes, the Cheyenne, the Arapaho, and the other 40 contemporary tribes that call this homeland,” said Scott Gilmore, the deputy executive director for Denver Parks and Recreation. “The buffalo are part of the land; so, what we are doing is honoring that land acknowledgment by transferring the buffalo back to the people who historically lived on these lands. We are transferring the land back to them.”

Bison transferred back to Tribal Nations

The City of Denver transferred 35 Denver Mountain Park bison to Tribal Nations.

This marks the third time Denver Parks and Recreation donated bison from Genesee and Daniels Parks to Tribal Nations since 2021 after the city council approved it. A total of 85 bison have been donated to American Indian Tribes since 2018. 

“For us Native people, it’s very important because the buffalos were with us since our ancestors were alive,” explained Johanna HolyElkFace, a member of the Sioux Nation. “They’re very sacred to us today and they were at the time also. They were more like protection for us and support for our health and for our living arrangements.”

American buffalo used to widely roam North America in massive herds. Bison — or iinniiwa in Blackfoot, tatanka in Lakota, ivanbito in Navajo, Kuts in Paiute— are one of the most significant animals to many Indigenous Nations.For thousands of years, Indigenous peoples used every part of the bison for survival and well-being including for food, clothing, shelter and tools.  

In the 19th century commercial hunting and diseases caused the near extinction of the animals of the west. DPR reports that by 1900 there were fewer than 1,000 bison in existence. The National Park Service now estimates about 30,000 bison live in public and private herds, managed in the name of conservation like in Genesee and Daniels Parks. 

Johanna HolyElkFace (left) spoke about the importance of the American Buffalo to Indigenous peoples. 

“I’m very happy it’s coming from off the reservation — the buffalos — and I know this is like a home to them, but I feel better because they are going back to the home where they first came from,” said HolyElkFace. 

Prior to these donations, DPR would auction off young bison from the parks to keep the herd at a healthy population size and to promote genetic diversity within the managed bison population. Now DPR works with Tribal partners to select Nations across the country to build and enhance conservation herds on Tribal lands.

The U.S. Department of the Interior announced at the beginning of March several new steps to restore wild and healthy populations of bison. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to hold the title in U.S. history, announced $25 million in new funding will come from the Inflation Reduction Act to help support the Department’s efforts to, “restore this iconic species and integrate Indigenous Knowledge into our shared stewardship goals.”

“While the overall recovery of bison over the last 130 years is a conservation success story, significant work remains to not only ensure that bison will remain a viable species but also to restore grassland ecosystems, strengthen rural economies dependent on grassland health and provide for the return of bison to Tribally owned and ancestral lands,” said Secretary Haaland. 

Part of the new efforts include establishing a Bison Working Group which will develop a framework for bison restoration. This group will be composed of representatives from five bureaus — the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), National Park Service (NPS), and U.S. Geological Survey. The announcement said Tribes and Tribally led organizations will be a major part of the plan moving forward. 

Gilmore with Denver Parks and Recreation said the organization has been working for years to make steps towards doing what is right to honor the Native lands that make up the Denver-metro area and this bison transfer is part of that work. 

“Trust is not given, it’s earned. That’s what this is about,” said Gilmore. “We have earned a lot of trust from these groups that now have something positive to work towards.”


Amanda Horvath is the managing producer at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach her at amandahorvath@rmpbs.org

Julio Sandoval is a multimedia journalist with Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach him at juliosandoval@rmpbs.org.

Ken Burns is producing a documentary called The American Buffalo, which is slated to premier on PBS and Rocky Mountain PBS this October. You can learn more about that project here

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