Some American Indians, yearning for the autonomy and spiritual integrity of their former buffalo culture, want to resurrect the Plains as a "buffalo commons."
The idea has caught on from remote Indian reservations to California entertainment meccas. West Coast environmentalists, eager to tap the Plains romance stirred by the film "Dances With Wolves," are planning a "buffalo tour," a kaleidoscope of big-name concerts to bankroll buffalo restoration."A hundred years ago, the Indians, with no knowledge of Western civilization, no knowledge of a cash economy and little knowledge of technology, were able to clothe, feed and house themselves far better than . . . when they had 100 years of education . . . and an alphabet soup of government poverty programs," said Vine Deloria Jr., a Sioux lawyer, activist and University of Colorado professor.
The idea of replenishing America's ailing heartland with native grasses and buffalo was pioneered in 1987 by an unlikely pair of Easterners: Rutgers University professors Frank and Deborah Popper.
Calling settlement in the arid Plains the "largest, longest-running agricultural and environmental miscalculation in the nation's history," the Poppers predicted mass depopulation of the 10-state Plains region. They cite a litany of woes: census figures showing the "continued hemorrhaging from the most rural parts of the states," drought, declining farm loans, the savings-and-loan crisis. Their alternative: a revolution in Plains land development and a return to buffalo roots.
Their idea has stirred opposition in parts of Kansas, Nebraska, Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas, where some farmers fear the Poppers are trying to oust them.
While anger has greeted the Poppers on parts of the Plains, they've received support from some American Indians.
"As soon as we press the buffalo button, Indians sense we're on their side," Frank Popper said. "In some weird, perverse way, the buffalo commons is a white, academic version of the Ghost Dance."
Added Deborah Popper: "We're not attempting to impose more white ways that just don't work. We're saying we have to rethink the way we've developed this area."
Bringing back buffalo to tribal lands would not only create a promising business venture but restore a native food source, Deloria and other backers argue. It could also rekindle a buffalo-based spirituality that was lost with the decimation of nearly 60 million buffalo to fewer than 500 by 1900.
"With the social disarray of many Indian tribes, one of the key elements to returning Indians to social and spiritual health is the return of buffalo," said Jeffrey Sanders, a Montana natural resources consultant to several Plains tribes.
"Symbolically and tangibly the return of buffalo is very important. It can help (resurrect) lost ceremonies and prayers along with actual meat," he said.
Already, the Northern Cheyenne and Crow Indians in south-central Montana have gotten into the buffalo ranching business with small herds. And Sanders and the Medicine Wheel Alliance, a Montana Indian advocacy group, have proposed a creative solution to Yellowstone National Park's bison woes: halt the hunting of bison who roam outside the park and donate the animals to tribes instead.
"That would have been a wonderful thing, the U.S. government helping to return buffalo to tribes when it once was the exterminator," said Sanders.
The U.S. Park Service is still considering the proposal.