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.
Until the Flandreau program is self-sustaining, the InterTribal Buffalo Council, a cooperative of more than 50 tribes created in the early 1990s to re-establish bison herds, is donating the animal meat to the Flandreau School. Officials also are hoping to get more money for the project through grants.
Once the herd is re-established, the hope is that other tribal entities, including the diabetic program, will choose to use the meat over buying from commercial pork, beef and chicken vendors, Fausti said. The tribe also may sell to outside sources as well.
It's been a battle to create a continuous stream of demand for the meat as a protein source due to fluctuating prices, Fausti said, noting that one non-American Indian cooperative in North Dakota went bankrupt several years ago, leaving thousands of dollars' worth of the meat in storage. Prices for bison meat, regardless of cut, were stable in December, the most recent month available, after recent spikes, according to the USDA.
Other tribes have tried similar methods to revitalize their herds: Students at the Southern Ute tribal school rely on bison for their meat, and Ponca tribal members with diabetes can get a prescription for the animal meat. But the Flandreau tribe is believed to be the first creating a self-sustaining commercial market from production to consumption, said Jim Stone, executive director of the InterTribal Buffalo Council.
Fausti said other tribes can look to the Flandreau model of incorporating organically grown bison into popular dishes as a way to create their own markets and cultural-restoration programs.
Della Flute, for one, agrees. The Flandreau Indian School kitchen aide chose to cook Christmas dinner for her mother and 20-year-old son with bison meat over other protein sources. Flute believes consuming more bison will help young people reconnect with their roots.
"I think a lot of us strayed far from (the culture)," said Flute, 41. "I think reservations would improve."
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