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After nearly 200 years, the Yuchi Tribe of Oklahoma reconnects with bison

The Yuchi Tribe of Oklahoma received five bison from Denver earlier this month, marking the first time in nearly two centuries that Yuchi people will once again interact with the animal.

"We have an opportunity to connect with them in direct ways and help them on their journey," says Richard Grounds, the executive director of the Yuchi Language Project, which works to create new Yuchi speakers by having fluent elders work with children.

The Yuchi Tribe was one of several to receive bison from the city of Denver, which maintains two conservation herds that are descended from the last wild bison in North America. Since 2018, the city has donated 85 surplus bison — which many, including Indigenous people, commonly call buffalo — to Native American tribes instead of selling them at auction, reflecting a broader effort to return stewardship to Native Americans.

"Part of the beauty of this entire project is that it's reconnecting among different Indigenous nations," Grounds says. For example, the Cheyenne and Arapaho nations already have herds, and they're "coaching us on handling buffalo, helping us with the pickup process."

These five bison will be used to establish a new herd through a combination of breeding and future transfers. They will also serve to reestablish a spiritual bond that was physically broken when the Yuchi were forced from their homeland and the bison were nearly eradicated.

The importance, and long absence, of bison in Yuchi culture

"yUdjEhanAnô sô KAnAnô," Grounds remembers saying to the bison when he came face to face with them in Denver.

It means "We, the Yuchi People, are still here." They, like the bison, survived colonial efforts to wipe them out, but were physically separated after being forced from their homelands in what is now the southeastern United States.

In a major Yuchi celebration called the Green Corn Ceremony, there is a dance to honor the relationship between people and the bison. For generations, it was passed on by people who had never seen one in person.

Halay Turning Heart is a project administrator for the Yuchi Language Project and a lifelong participant in the Green Corn Ceremony, including the buffalo dance. The dance evokes "how buffalo sound when they're running, shaking the ground" through stomping, she says.

Turning Heart says the animal was an abstract concept for her as a child — she only knew it from pictures. She never saw a bison in person until she reached adulthood and visited her husband's Lakota reservation in South Dakota.

"For my kids to actually be around buffalo and see them in real life, in their natural habitat, and have a better connection and understanding of who they are is very powerful," Turning Heart says. It will "reveal more meaning to the buffalo dance that we're still carrying on" and increase respect for the dance and the creatures themselves.

The song for the Yuchi buffalo dance doesn't include the word for buffalo, and when the Yuchi Language Project started, Grounds says elders had trouble remembering it. They had never seen one, and neither had their parents or grandparents.

"We didn't think to put the name for the buffalo in our buffalo dance song, because who could ever imagine that these magnificent creatures would be slaughtered by the millions?" Grounds says.

Connecting with the natural world

Restoring the Yuchi language has allowed people to reconnect with the land, plants and animals, Grounds and Turning Heart both say. For example, Yuchi language doesn't have a separate word for animals as a category and references them with the same pronoun as all non-Yuchi living things.

"Through the language, we're learning that worldview and that respect that our elders held, which is a very different worldview than the dominant English society," which sees animals as lesser beings, Turning Heart says.

Indigenous spiritual connections to the natural world have historically been dismissed as unscientific or childish with racist stereotypes. But Grounds points out that the destructiveness of viewing everything as "nonliving, non-valued hunks of matter" has helped contribute to things like climate change and serious ecological problems.

For example — tens of millions of bison used to live in North America, but by the late 1800s, they had been nearly driven to extinction "through uncontrolled hunting and a U.S. policy of eradication tied to intentional harm against and control of Native American Tribes," according to the Department of the Interior.

Grounds says that as the bison were loaded onto trailers in Denver to be brought back to Oklahoma, the noise of their hooves was thunderous and the scene was "very striking." After nearly 200 years of carrying on the buffalo dance without having them around, "now I get to see how the buffalo dance really goes."

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Kaitlyn Radde
Kaitlyn Radde is an intern for the Graphics and Digital News desks, where she has covered everything from the midterm elections to child labor. Before coming to NPR, she covered education data at Chalkbeat and contributed data analysis to USA TODAY coverage of Black political representation and NCAA finances. She is a graduate of Indiana University.