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1.G. Humanities at Large Blogpost 19 October 2017

Jackman Humanities Institute Blog
19 October 2017

In her presentation to the JHI fellows, postdoctoral fellow Danielle Taschereau Mamers introduced her JHI project, "Decolonizing the Plains: Indigenous Resurgance through Buffalo Repatriation".

In her presentation, Danielle addressed broad questions about relationships and the material ways colonial processes have sought to shape them, as well as more specific questions about relations on the prairies between Plains nations and the buffalo nation, which have been radically altered by Canadian and American attempts to introduce new relations of property and ownership, of borders and state sovereignty.

Buffalo in Grasslands National Park

Buffalo in Grasslands National Park

Danielle comes to the questions of buffalo, their histories, and their political status as a settler scholar. Two arguments made by Indigenous theorists broadly orient her study. The first is Dian Million’s claim that, “to ‘decolonize’ means to understand as fully as possible the forms colonialism takes in our own times” (2009, 15). Working to understand the forms that colonialism takes in our own times has meant thinking about the prairies where she was raised, a context shaped by conditions that can be described as indelible violence.

The second argument comes from Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang’s assertion that decolonization is not a metaphor but a project that requires the repatriation of land and life. The question “What is colonization?”, they write, “must be answered specifically, with attention to the colonial apparatus that is assembled to order the relationships between particular peoples, lands, the ‘natural world’, and ‘civilization’.” (2012, 21). Danielle reads Tuck and Yang’s call for the material return of land and life as one that also requires dismantling the colonial apparatus that has attempted to order and to govern a great many relations. In their formulation, “life” includes animal life, both read as sustenance for Indigenous life and, more importantly, as in relation with Indigenous life. She is particularly interested in their framing of return as “repatriation”. Repatriation is associated with returning individuals, human remains, or objects to their communities of origin; this returning is tied to relationships and is something different than the contractual return of property or patrimony. Through its connection to and activation of relationships, she suggested that repatriation might be a productive frame for thinking about
1) the practical return of land and life and
2) the dis-ordering of a settler colonial apparatus and its relational grids.

Also instructive, especially for thinking about human-animal relations, is Zoe Todd’s study of fish as involved in colonial processes. In her archival and field research, Todd investigates plural ways of knowing, defining, and being in relation with fish in the North West Territories community of Paulutuuq. More than just a food source, she observes that “human-fish relations present a whole host of social, cultural, and legal-governance principles that underpin life in Paulatuuq” (2014, 28). Fishing in this community involves a constellation of knowledge and activities tied to the physical endeavor of fishing as well as to practices that engage broader land- and water-scapes. Given that fish and the Inuvialuit are agents in experiencing colonialism, Todd argues that approaches to dismantling colonial processes must extend beyond human redress.  Todd calls for attending to relationships between Indigenous peoples and other-than-human relations as sites of legal and political exchange. This insight is a point of departure for Danielle’s thinking: perhaps the potential that Todd sees for Inuvialuit-fish relations to disrupt narrow narrations of colonization and anthropocentric state discourses might also be found on the prairies. The relationship between Indigenous nations and the buffalo has been a site of colonial violence. But it can also be a site of justice and resurgence.

In a broader sense, she noted, her project is also informed by critical animal studies and multispecies studies. These avenues of critique are orientated towards a political analysis of species classifications and the power relations they reproduce as well as an attunement to the entanglements of lively worlds. Researchers working in these fields advocate styles of observing and writing that are attentive to other-than-human lives and relations. Such modes of research and the approaches of Indigenous scholars like Todd, as well as Kim TallBear, Billy Ray Belcourt, and Winona LaDuke, each contribute to a more complex story about past and ongoing violence.

Colonial processes of extraction centrally involved animals from the beginning. Fish, deer, and buffalo fed the fur traders; beaver, muskrat, and mink fed the trade itself. Conceptualizing colonization as extending beyond human lives presents an opportunity for intervening in discourses of reconciliation. By looking at the harms done to human and animal bodies, the relationships between them, and the lands that support them, we can find different material entry points into thinking about reconciliation and, necessarily, decolonization. 

At the end of the 18th century, there were 30 to 60 million free-ranging bison on the North American prairie. These herds were a keystone species that influenced all aspects of life in the region. This massive number of animals shaped the physical landscape with the combined force of their hooves treading the soil along migration paths and influenced vegetation in the region with their grazing habits, and subsequent fertilization. These interventions in the land enabled all sorts of multispecies relations. By the turn of the 20th century, however, less than a thousand buffalo remained on the continent.

Historical Distribution of Bison in North America

The Historical Distribution of Bison in North America (Virtual Museum of Métis History and Culture)

The primary factors in this near-extinction were colonial processes. The extermination of the bison was a central component of opening up the prairies for Euro-Canadian settlement. The extermination of free-ranging herds attacked the material, political, and cultural supports for Indigenous life on the prairies. This was a key tactic in the broader strategy of eliminating Indigenous claims to territory as well as their ability to defend those claims. The North American prairie, then, is a place cultivated and settled amongst buffalo bones. It is a world made possible through the elimination of the species in its wild, free-ranging form. It is crucial to note that the vast majority of the herds were exterminated between 1850 and the late 1870s. The killing was not only radical in its scope, but also in its speed.

At the heart of this scene of profound loss is a transformation of relations between humans and animals. Complex, storied relationships of reciprocity, obligation, and responsibility between human and animal peoples were replaced by a narrow relationship of property. In this property relation, subjectivity and agency are reserved for humans—the potential “owners”—and animals are exclusively legible as objects—the “owned”. Today, the bison herds that exist in Canada are property of either ranchers or the state.

In the 1870s, Michel Pablo, a member of the Flathead tribe in what is now Western Montana, brought a small number of buffalo to the Flathead Reservation. Pablo and his family watched over the herd until much of the Flathead territory was privatized by the Dawes Act and sold to settlers. Pablo was forced to sell the herd, which was purchased by the Canadian government and relocated to newly formed National Parks in 1907.

It bears noting that the placement of surviving buffalo in National Parks was roughly contemporaneous with the sequestering of Indigenous peoples to reserves. I’ve come across several instances where elders have described both parks and reserves as places of exile.

Right now, there are approximately 127,000 bison in Canada, of which 95% live under commercial production. Conservationists and commercial producers often applaud themselves for working to repair the damage done by the 19th century extermination. But these projects tend to leave the fundamental transformation of relations between humans and buffalo unacknowledged and undisturbed. A fraction of the size of their ancestral herds, contemporary conservation and commercial herds continue to be enclosed by the property relations that drove the extermination of their ancestors.

Targeting the vital relationship between plains nations and bison was key to undermining Indigenous self-determination and establishing private property. Ultimately, it was a fundamental condition of possibility for the settlement of what is now Western Canada.
The extermination of the bison operated as a localized, regional “solution” to the so-called “Indian Problem”. The violence of the exterminations that unfolded was twofold:
1) Violence that undercut the means of Plains Nations subsistence; and
2) Violence of not being able to fulfill the obligations and responsibilities required by reciprocal Indigenous-buffalo relations. 
Such violence must be read as perpetrated against bodies (both buffalo and human) and as a foreclosing of relationships and futurities.

Rather than end on a story of the buffalo that culminates with their violent removal and the devastating implications of that loss, Danielle closed by introducing her project on the Northern Tribes Buffalo Treaty. This Treaty is a possible model for thinking about the practical work of decolonization. This model centers Indigenous knowledge and the restoration of the very relations targeted in the 19th century exterminations: those between Plains Indigenous peoples and the buffalo.

Northern Tribes Buffalo Treaty 2nd Anniversary Ceremony

Northern Tribes Buffalo Treaty Second Anniversary Ceremony, 29 September 2016, Banff AB (Photo credit: Danielle Taschereau Mamers)

The Buffalo Treaty supports the regeneration of cultural, social, and political relations with buffalo herds and speaks to the centrality of human-animal relations to Indigenous sovereignty. Referring to buffalo as the relatives of the Treaty’s human signatories, the agreement articulates relationships between the buffalo and Plains nations as mutually constitutive and based in reciprocal nurturing. Here, the vision for the future of Indigenous peoples and free-ranging buffalo herds is one of interrelation between land, animals, plants, and humans.

Danielle proposes that the Buffalo Treaty offers an innovative way of extending the concept of repatriation. Rather than seeking to restore missing elements to defaunated ecosystems, buffalo repatriation is defined by the restoration of political, epistemological, and cultural relationships between humans and herds. Restoring these relationships is work oriented towards supporting connections with land-based practices, ceremony, and intergenerational learning. This work reads to me as closely aligned with other repatriation activities. Repatriation, then, can be understood as decolonizing practice that substantively restores resources and relations to Indigenous nations. The Buffalo Treaty innovatively does just this by repatriating living animals and creating the conditions for regenerating human-animal relationships.


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