Danny Sam silently watches the buffalo graze. He is standing outside his truck surveying the majestic herd on the fenced 700 acre habitat on the Picuris Pueblo. It is difficult to read his thoughts; but, he seems to be able to read theirs.
Danny and his wife Jonette, head the Picuris Pueblo Bison Program designed to incorporate buffalo back into the American Indian way of life.
"We are bringing them in as a cultural and spiritual aspect. The buffalo has always had a special place in the Indian lifestyle," Danny explains. "They are in our myths which are verbally handed down from generation to generation and we have used their meat for food and their skins for various uses."
The Picuris Pueblo is a member of the Intertribal Bison Cooperative (ITBC), based in Rapid City, South Dakota. The ITBC was formed in 1990 to coordinate and assist tribes in returning the buffalo to Indian country. The organization has a membership of 57 tribes with a collective herd of more than 8,000 bison.
What began as one lone buffalo at the Picuris Pueblo in 1993 has increased to a thriving herd of 54. When the Sams took over the operation in 2000 there were 15 buffalo. The Sams with the help of the Intertribal Bison Cooperative brought in animals from the Taos Pueblo as well as from neighboring states including Nebraska.
"Our mission," says Danny "is to build a self-sustaining herd that supports the community and provides an indigenous diet. Buffalo is high in protein and low in fat and can help battle diabetes."
According to the National Diabetes Education Program, American Indians on average are 2.3 more times likely to have diabetes as non-Hispanic whites. Diabetes is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease in all American Indian populations, and cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in this group.
Only a few generations ago, American Indians were hunters and gatherers. Their bodies developed the genetic ability to store calories and release them during times of scarcity. The adopted Anglo lifestyle is only a few generations removed from traditional tribal lifestyle. As such the American Indian's bodies have not had time to adjust to today's high fat and sodium foods. The once life-saving process American Indians had, being able to store fat, is now turning into a life-threatening disease: diabetes. By returning to a low fat, high fiber diet-such as buffalo meat-diabetes can be prevented.
To assist in that lifestyle, many families in the pueblo have planted individual gardens and are raising their own vegetables. But as Danny notes, "It is a slow process when dealing with nature. A lot of businesses get up and running in two to three years, but not something like this," Danny laughs. "It takes a long, long time."
When the buffalo go to slaughter, Danny tries to involve the entire pueblo, not just for distribution of the meat, but for the cultural and spiritual aspect-honoring the animal, using the provisions and a throwback to hunting days. "We tell everyone to come down and help," he says. "The children are interested in the process and enjoy the meat from the buffalo."
It is Danny's hope that once the business is established it will provide job opportunities for these children when they are older and others on the pueblo.
Danny recently applied for grants to buy equipment to upgrade the jerky operations, and other equipment to tan the buffalo hides. Currently, a member of the pueblo is painstakingly doing this job by hand. Hair, another byproduct, can be woven and used in various crafts. Danny had employed an outside contractor to do this, but the rates were so high, a profit could not be made. He is currently looking for funding to start a program for tribal members to learn these skills.
About four times a year, the buffalo meat is distributed freely to families on the pueblo. Danny would like that to become a monthly event. However tribal members can buy buffalo at a reduced rate, "Cheaper than buying meat in a grocery store," Danny claims.
And healthier. The buffalo raised at the pueblo are free of growth hormones. If Danny had it his way they would roam freely and not have to be fenced in, but the US government says otherwise.
"Most people think of buffalo in terms of cattle, but they're not, they're wild. You can't push bison like cattle," Danny says. The cattle graze on the land and their diet is supplemented only by hay or feed grown within the states. There are no growth hormones or additives in their diet. If an animal is injured and becomes sick, it is humanely put down. It is not "pumped up" with antibiotics for six months. As Danny explains, "You are adding more injury to the animal through chemicals and antibiotics and then you are wasting the meat."
In addition to Danny and his wife there are two other full-time employees that tend to the herd. A day's work might include riding on horses to mend the fences, feeding the cattle, overseeing the 160 acres dedicated to hay production, making jerky or helping pack the meat that is sold at the local farmers' markets. Other by-products such as rawhide gift boxes, skulls and tanned hides are sold to consumers off the pueblo.
Danny's wife Jonette handles the administrative work and is in charge of all the marketing and can be frequently found at the Santa Fe market selling the meat and jerky. However profit from the bison is not a goal, rather a means to meet the end goal of self-sustainability, unlike the private sector of the bison industry-those who are in it to "make a buck."
"If marketing these products help maintain these animals we've reached our ultimate goal. If we break even, we've done what we set out to do," says Danny reflectively.
With a background in ranching, Danny attended courses through the Intertribal Bison Cooperative to learn everything from how to care for the animals and how to mend fences. He is now on the board of the ITBC. The ITBC is a multi-faced organization that not only educates Native Americans about caring for the animal, but also helps the general public understand the significance of buffalo in the Indian culture.
The ITBC Tribal Store sells everything from meat to clothing including ITBC logo caps and beautiful hand-painted robes by Indian artists. Buffalo skulls, each decorated by Indian artist Del Iron Cloud, and adorned with imitation eagle feathers, conch shells, brass tacks and leather thongs are also available for purchase.
The group's educational division produced a 22-minute documentary "Return of the Native," featuring several tribal buffalo programs and their trials and tribulations. This documentary garnered the "Best Industrial Video Award" from the American Indian Film Institute. There are also buffalo coloring books and an interactive CD ROM "Benefits of the Buffalo," which highlights the health aspects of eating the meat. It is the latter which is of most interest to Danny Sam.
His work does not end when the sun goes down. He and the ITBC along with volunteers from other tribes are developing an initiative to establish scientific results that the meat is healthy and can prevent diabetes.
"We want to get whole families involved eating buffalo meat and vegetables," Danny says. "We want to monitor the families and go to Washington D.C. with concrete results and show the government we can save them millions of dollars on diabetes medicines."
How successful has Picuris Pueblo been with the re-introduction of buffalo? "Well," says Danny with a shrug, "we're still in business."
For more information on the Picuris Pueblo Bison Program or to find out how to purchase the buffalo meat please call Jonette Sam (505) 587-1077, fax (505) 587-1071.
The Intertribal Bison Cooperative is a non-profit organization. For more information on the ITBC, please visit their website: intertribalbison.org.