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Where the 'mashkode bizhiki' roam: Red Lake Nation plans a bison farm

Cherilyn Spears, project coordinator for economic development in Red Lake, stands where a buffalo farm owned by Red Lake Nation has been proposed. The land is located east of Lower Red Lake. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)1 / 3
Henry Donnell Sr., who will be the buffalo manager, talks about Red Lake’s venture on Thursday at the Red Lake Nation Government Center. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)2 / 3
Kade Ferris, tribal archaeologist for Red Lake Nation, speaks about the buffalo farm on Thursday at the Red Lake Nation Government Center. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)3 / 3

GONVICK, Minn.—A snowy, wooded patch of farmland 10 miles north of Gonvick was largely empty on Thursday, but Cherilyn Spears and Henry Donnell, Sr., have a vision for it.

They and other Red Lake Nation staff plan to reintroduce a "seed" herd of plains buffalo there next fall, phase one of a four-year project they hope will have cascading cultural, economic and health benefits for the Ojibwe band and its members.

Spears, a project coordinator for Red Lake Economic Development and Planning, supervises the project and handles its financial side. Donnell is an area bison rancher who's set to oversee the farm's day-to-day operations and the installation of a new fence there, among other accommodations for the massive animals.

The short-term goal is an 80-acre paddock for about 30 bison—"mashkode bizhiki" in Ojibwemowin—of varying ages, but Spears and Donnell plan to expand it into a 560-acre pasture with dozens and dozens of bison that doubles as an economic and cultural hub. They're thinking tourism; field trips; youth programming; trails; cultural tours; Airbnb stays; meat and jerky sales; and an interpretive center that highlights tribal history, stories, knowledge and traditional dietary practices—but that's not even half of a long list they brainstormed last winter as the project got rolling.

"At the first meeting it became more than just a buffalo farm," Spears said.

One source of inspiration is a similar farm run by the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in North Dakota. Kade Ferris, a Red Lake tribal archaeologist, helped get that farm off the ground, and now he's advising Spears and Donnell as they work to do the same in Red Lake.

"It's a 1,300-acre park with camping, with educational events, with buffalo, with fishing, the whole nine yards," Ferris said of the Turtle Mountain farm. "And we just saw the buffalo as the focal point to work around. Everything kind of grew out of that."

(Technically, "buffalo" live only in Asia and Africa and "bison" is the correct term for the North American animals, but one is casually and routinely swapped for the other. "Everybody calls 'em buffalo anyway," Ferris said with a laugh.)

But reinforcing—or introducing—traditional American Indian practices there is one of several benefits the farm's planners anticipate.

Turtle Mountain's operation is a break-even venture, Ferris said, but Red Lake's could be a new revenue stream for the band because they can sell bison meat to relatively close population centers such as Duluth and the Twin Cities and, pending U.S. Department of Agriculture approval, include it in school lunches at Red Lake School District, where virtually every student is American Indian.

They might also sell their buffalo to Native American Natural Foods, a company based on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation that's majority owned and operated by Oglala Lakota tribal members. The firm makes Tanka—"large" or "great" in Lakota—brand products: cranberry and buffalo bars, turkey and buffalo jerky and other health-conscious offerings.

And the Red Lake farm could make it easier for residents to get ahold of healthier and more traditional fare. A customary American Indian diet, Ferris said, is mostly foods like fish, wild rice, corn, potatoes—and bison.

"But the reservation system totally blew that apart, and that's why you have diabetes rates that are so high and heart disease rates that are so high because you're asking a people in 100 years to go from whole foods to processed foods and not have any health impact," he said. "People haven't had a chance to adapt to that yet, when your great-grandparents were hunting buffalo."

Red Lake Nation workers plan to ready the paddock this spring and summer, then pick up the first batch of bison from Wind Cave National Park in October. Their planned release date is Oct. 18, but Spears said it could be sooner than that.

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education (mostly K-12) and American Indian affairs for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He's from Minneapolis, earned a degree from the College of St. Benedict - St. John's University in 2009, and worked at the Perham Focus near Detroit Lakes and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis before heading to the Pioneer.

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