Eric Lanwehr, South Dakota State University, Associated Press
FLANDREAU, S.D. — It seems an unlikely concept: teenagers forgoing the immediacy of a McDonald's Big Mac to don an apron, grab a meat patty and learn how to cook their own lower-fat version in the kitchen.
But for a group of students at the Flandreau Indian School in South Dakota, they're doing just that while learning about bison, an animal considered sacred in their Native American culture.
The students are part of a pilot project started by the Flandreau Santee Sioux tribe and South Dakota State University researchers to restore the cultural significance of the animal, also called buffalo, and consumption of its meat among community members, particularly young people. Through cooking demonstrations and educational outreach opportunities, the students are learning that there are healthier, tasty options that also connect them to their ancestors more than any prepackaged meat or drive-thru order could.
"You can't go to Hy-Vee and just pick up ground buffalo to actually get the spiritual connection. I think that's kind of been lost," said Geriann Headrick, acting food service manager at the Flandreau Indian School, referring to a regional supermarket chain.
The school began preparing school meals with fresh bison meat last year as part of the pilot project.
Nearly 20 professors across five departments at SDSU are involved in the project, which they hope will be used as a model among other tribes trying to revive the demand for bison.
Although bison tastes a bit different — some think it has a sweeter, richer flavor than beef — Flandreau Indian School senior Dillon Blackbird said he prefers school meals served with bison because it's "real meat."
One of more than 30 students from the Flandreau Indian School to take part in cooking workshops with bison as the main ingredient, Blackbird said he now knows how to whip up his own dishes with bison, which has less fat and fewer calories than beef.
"I make basic stuff: tacos, enchiladas, spaghetti, lasagna," Blackbird said.
SDSU researchers want other teenagers to follow Blackbird's lead, creating a market within the tribe for the next 40 to 50 years and changing the way members think about the animal.
Like many American Indian tribes, the Flandreau Santee Sioux maintains its own herd as a tie to its ancestors who relied on bison for survival. Established in 1990 with 12 heifer calves and one bull calf acquired from Custer State Park in western South Dakota, the herd swelled to about 250 animals by the spring of 2009.
But the herd has become more ceremonial than necessity, and when it began costing too much money, tribal officials considered selling the animals until SDSU researchers pitched the idea for a new market via the hearty appetites of teenagers.
"Like all Americans, Native Americans are used to eating traditional American foods. Even though the bison means something to them culturally more than the average American, they are used to eating chicken legs and cooking hamburgers," said SDSU economics professor Scott Fausti. "What we're trying to do, of course, is to lessen the financial burden upon the tribe by further integrating bison into the community, (allowing) the bison to provide greater resources to the community by using it as a substitute protein source."
The Flandreau Santee Sioux tribe has since culled the herd to fewer than 50 animals as it works to regrow them organically — without hormones or pesticides — which Fausti said is more attuned to traditional American Indian beliefs. Ideally, the herd will return to 160 to 180 organically grown bison, supplying 30 to 40 animals each year for the community.
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