The bison, protected species
The Plains Bison is the largest land mammal in North America. For centuries, it roamed the prairies of central North America in herds so vast that the earth shook. Its flesh and all its body parts fed and equipped many Indigenous nations who lived in symbiosis with it. The Indigenous peoples and the voyageursof the fur trade dried its meat into pemmican, an energy-rich food essential to their long journeys. Then, in the 19thcentury, the bison was practically wiped out, which contributed to the starvation of many Indigenous groups. Today, it is still designated as a threatened species by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, but it can still be admired in a few Canadian natural parks. It is also raised for its highly prized meat. The Government of Saskatchewan has designated it as part of the provincial heritage.
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Saving and protecting bison in Canada’s natural parks
In about 1800, there were estimated to be 50 million bison roaming the wide prairies of central North America. By 1900, there remained no more than 500 living specimens.
A few Americans and Canadians sought to save the species; among them were Michel Pablo and Charles Allard, who owned the last herd of free-ranging bison on their huge ranch in Montana, USA. In 1906, the Government of Canada offered to purchase a few hundred of the beasts. The offer was accepted, but it took two years of efforts by the best cowboys in Montana, directed by Charles Allard Junior, to get 410 bison aboard 17 rail cars, specially reinforced to withstand the assaults of these powerful creatures. The bison were transported, then penned in an immense enclosure that was made a national park in 1909, Elk Island Park, near Edmonton. All bison in Canada descend from these survivors. In 1946, preservation of the Plains Bison entered Canada’s list of national historic events.
Today, the public can observe bison in the following national parks: Elk Island, Wood Buffalo and Waterton Lakes, Alberta; Prince Albert and the Prairies, Saskatchewan; and Riding Mountain, Manitoba. In all, a few thousand bison are spread unevenly among these parks. Specialists jealously watch over this precious Canadian natural heritage. Each year, Elk Island Park organizes a Bison Festival, where dishes can be tasted and shows celebrating bison culture can be watched.
In Saskatchewan, at Wanuskewin Heritage Park, near Saskatoon, you can also learn about the way of life of the Indigenous nations of the Prairies, who, for many millennia, lived in a symbiotic relationship with the bison, according to archaeological findings at the site.
Since the 1970s, bison raising for meat has grown steadily in the western provinces of Canada. In 2015, there were some 500,000 head, most of them in Alberta and Saskatchewan. The advantage of raising bison is that they are perfectly adapted to the climate of the Canadian prairies and accommodate naturally to all its extremes. Demand for its tasty meat, healthier than beef, is strong in Europe and growing in North America. It is on the menu in many restaurants in the Western provinces.
Bison and the Indigenous peoples: rituals and spirituality
The bison was so vital to many of the Indigenous nations of the Prairies that they made it part of their spirituality and their relationship of sacred interdependence with nature. These nations ate its meat and used its hide for clothing, shelter and watercraft, its bone marrow as lubricant, its bones and tendons for making tools and weapons, its stomach as a container and its horns and skull as ritual objects. This prodigious herbivore met almost all their needs. It was also a source of courage and ingenuity, since it took a lot of people to bring down one of these ferocious beasts, which, when fleeing danger or charging enemies in herds of thousands, could destroy everything it their path. This is why the Indigenous people running Wanuskewin Heritage Park want to acquire surrounding land, where they can reintroduce the bison to recreate the spiritual bond with this sacred animal, seen as the “Lord of the virgin Prairies”. Each year since 2014, All Nations Hope (ANH) has organized a bison festival, accompanied by rituals intended to strengthen the community.
In the 19thcentury, excessive hunting for meat and hides, which were highly prized for transmission belts in factories, conversion of natural prairie to farmland, and above all the systematic extermination of the herds of bison on which the Indigenous nations depended, took their toll on these seemingly countless herds. Their near-extinction was a disastrous blow to the Indigenous peoples and the Francophone Métis of the Canadian Prairies.
Pemmican is a typically Amerindian dish; the word derives from the Cree word pimikan, meaning “shortening”. It consists of bison meat and dried berries reduced to a powder and mixed with bison fat. It is highly nourishing and keeps for months, even years. From the late 18th century to the mid 19th, it was the staple food of the voyageursin the fur trade in the Canadian West. It was intensively traded by the Métis of the Red River (today Winnipeg) and was central to the rivalry between the Northwest and Hudson’s Bay companies at the height of their trade war in the late 1810s.