Today is National Bison Day, and I don’t know if I’ve shared this before, but one of my favorite animals is the bison. I’ve never worked with them, or know a ton about them, but my respect for them goes pretty deep. In high school, I learned quite a lot about the Native American Medicine Wheel, and where bison, or buffalo, stand in regard of respected animals.
Indigenous People honored the buffalo because they provided so much for their livelihood. They ate bison meat and made clothes, leather, and tools from the hide, bones, and horns. The native word for buffalo was “Tatanka”, which had two meanings– first was “large horned animal” and the other meaning was “teacher.”
Buffalo were called “Wounded Healers.” In the Medicine Wheel, the buffalo is in the place of the North, the place of wisdom. The Indigenous People revered buffalo, emulating their “honorable harvest.” Sadly, as European settlers began claiming native lands for themselves, more than native cultures were lost. The American bison once freely roamed the prairies and numbered in the millions (estimated at 60 million in the early 1800s). By the end of the century, though, there were less than 1000.
First Nations honored the animal from whom they received so many gifts. They never hunted more than they needed, and they always used the entire animal. Such was their way. The settlers exploited the bison, overhunting them with reckless abandon. Buffalo tongue was considered a delicacy, and hundreds of thousands of bison were slaughtered, their bodies laid wasted, only their tongues cut out and used.
Bison also faced threats from loss of habitat. They are nomadic, social creatures, living in large herds that eat grasses and other plants. They embody the ZooFit philosophy of “finding your sacred space.”However, as their habitat became developed, there were fewer places to sustain their populations.
Fortunately, today, thanks to conservation efforts and protection laws, the bison is once again an iconic staple of the American frontier. National parks like Yellowstone and Grand Tetons host several large herds that can be viewed by visitors (at a safe and respectful distance, please!).
The Healthy Alternative to Factory Farmed Animals
But to be honest, this wouldn’t be a true ZooFit post if I didn’t mention the health benefits WE get out of protecting and saving bison.
America is a meat-loving nation. We love our burgers, our steaks, our franks. But did you know that NONE of the domestic cattle we consume are native to the United States? They are all introduced species from Asia, Africa, and mostly Europe. Sure, our vast open lands provide fantastic sustenance to all the cattle, but because they are introduced, and not native, we use a LOT more resources feeding, watering, and caring for these creatures.
But bison? They are the complete opposite. Yes, they are bigger, but pound for pound, compared to other cattle, bison use fewer resources. Plus, it is virtually impossible to successfully factory farm bison. If you are eating bison meat, you are eating truly free-range meat. Grass-fed and free-range meats don’t require the same antibiotics as factory-farmed, grain-eating, hurry-up-and-get-them-fat-and-ready-for-slaughter livestock that overruns our grocery aisles.
Bison is also leaner and overall healthier than regular beef. Honestly, if you are dead set on eating meat products, THIS is the one I would advocate you consume. It’s healthier for you, and it’s naturally healthier for the environment.
Where the Buffalo Roam
Wild bison, not just farmed for food bison, help the planet as well. As nomadic foraging herbivores, these animals could eat a lot of grass, but they never devoured all the plants in an area. They ate to their hearts’ content, and migrated to another area, giving their harvested grasslands time to regrow. Several months later, the bison would return to feast some more. First Nations called this practice the “Honorable Harvest” and much of what they practiced was modeled after this. Interestingly, when we harvest our food but don’t take ALL of it, the plants don’t just grow back, they grow back and multiply. There will be MORE food later than originally was taken. No wonder the Indigenous People called buffalo Tatanka. They are amazing teachers!
While bison have enjoyed a tremendous comeback, they, among many other wild species, are not in the clear. They still face a dwindling space to roam, which they need. Bison are also susceptible to the negative effects of climate change. Many organizations, such as zoos and conservation groups work to protect bison and their habitat, so there will always be a place “where the buffalo roam.”
You can spread the word about the importance of bison conservation and the health benefits, too. National Bison Day is a great time to learn about the bison and the efforts to protect them. Share this blog with your friends and family to help spread the word.