Updated: 11:17 a.m.
Paul Dressen stands on the back of a flatbed truck as it moves slowly by bison cows and their calves grazing from hay bales in their winter pasture.
They are much more than livestock. Dressen calls them his relatives.
“I think it’s really important to understand that we as Dakota people here on our homelands, we have had a 10,000-year relationship with our relatives,” said Dressen, the education director at Prairie Island Indian Community.
He explains that Dakota people, among others, see their relationship with bison as reciprocal — each caring for the other.
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In 1992, the community near Red Wing was gifted a bull named Shooting Star. A short time later, they purchased two bison cows. The community now cares for a large herd on a 110-acre farm along the Mississippi River.
Dressen says the return of bison to the river valley is just one sign of health here.
“Thanks to the commitment of our elders, our veterans and our community members and tribal council, today we have a herd of at least 300,” said Dressen. “We have at least 70 babies this year. So as our community came back home and started to grow, it also mirrored our relatives coming back also. And today, both the community and the buffalo here at Prairie Island are flourishing.”
In the decades since Prairie Island established its bison herd, tribal nations have worked to get U.S. Department of Agriculture support for the growing and processing of Indigenous foods. And they want more say in how those systems operate.
Advocates say tribal self-governance under the farm bill means that tribes would manage their own programs after agreeing to comply with USDA standards. It’s part of an effort to reclaim food sovereignty or control over production and distribution of the foods that sustained communities for generations including before colonization.
In 2018, the Native Farm Bill Coalition (NFBC) advocated for a pilot project that supported the purchase of traditional foods.
Eight tribes were allowed to purchase Indigenous foods outside those vendors approved by the USDA. The coalition and others would like to see the program expanded to include all tribal nations across the country. For Prairie Island, it could mean contracts with the USDA that would offset the costs of their operation and increase sales and trade opportunities.
The coalition said the USDA spent $4 billion in tribal communities nationwide in fiscal year 2022, but only a fraction of that spending went to contracts with Indigenous farmers and producers.
At the White House Tribal Nations Summit this week, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced a pilot program for the purchase of bison and other wild meats.
The program will create public-private partnerships to expand purchasing power for tribal bison producers. Vilsack said the pilots could inform changes in the farm bill when Congress takes up re-authorization in the coming year.
Others are rethinking how the meat inspection system could help bison producers. Carly Hotvedt with the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative said rather than using the fee for service for federal inspectors, tribal nations could “adopt a food safety code that would be in parity with federal standards.
There would be some flexibility for tribes to determine how and what funding that they would use to support bison processing.”
Hotvedt said that could reduce the costs for tribal producers engaging in bison production.
“It would allow for that inspection standard to be able to enter those bison in interstate commerce. And it would allow tribes to source bison products for federal nutrition programs as well,” said Hotvedt.
There’s also a proposal to give more access to USDA conservation programs. Prairie Island uses federal government assistance to prevent overgrazing.
Gabe Miller, director of land and environment for Prairie Island, said funding from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Services has already helped the community create a rotational grazing program for bison, making “that whole area more productive for forage.”
Prairie Island harvests mature buffalo several times a year. The meat is processed at a nearby facility in Cannon Falls.
Paul Dressen said the community’s relationship with bison is key to reclaiming an overall sense of health.
“There were 300 years of a real struggle to ... even survive.”
He points out 4,000 pounds of bison meat is making its way into freezers in Prairie Island this winter to give community members “access to that food sovereignty.”
Correction (Dec. 8, 2023): A previous version incorrectly described Paul Dressen as a Prairie Island Community member in a photo caption. Also a caption gave the wrong first name for Nicky Buck. The above story has been updated.