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Bison restoration efforts could prove a valuable inroad for private businesses aiming for tribal partnerships. Investments in these efforts could quickly produce returns while supporting cultural and health revitalization in tribal communities. 

That’s the case made by Native leaders and federal representatives brought together by the American Sustainable Business Network, or ASBN. The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organized a webinar in late March to discuss private opportunities around bison restoration. Speakers included representatives from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the Intertribal Buffalo Council (IBC).

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The BIA pointed to a surge of multiple-agency federal support in bringing bison back to tribal communities. Examples included federal distribution of surplus animals from federally managed herds to tribes, as well as a Department of Agriculture purchasing programs. Bison populations have grown rapidly in the wake of such programs, according to IBC Executive Director Troy Heinert. 

Roughly 25,000 bison now roam tribal lands across the country, and that opens up an array of opportunities for private businesses seeking tribal partners or new avenues for investment, Heinert said. Private partners could provide supplies for expanding ranches, or offer a marketing avenue for products made from sustainably raised animals. 

“Some tribes just want to have that cultural connection. Some tribes are looking to feed their people. Some tribes are obviously in this for the economics and are able to sell meat or other products,” Heinert said. “Whatever direction they’re going, that’s where the business community can come in and help. If we can start with the buffalo, I think you’ll find other avenues where you can find tribal partners.”

David Levine, ASBN co-founder and president, called the webinar an opportunity to “change the culture” of private investment in Indian Country. Often private investors don’t know how to find tribal partners, or they misunderstand cultural differences between private and tribal sectors, Levine said.

ASBN has worked with the Department of the Interior to develop events like the webinar. These conversations encourage tribal collaboration with the larger business community, and also prepare that community for those partnerships, Levine said. 

“We want to provide guidance to the private sector, philanthropy, and others on how to work with tribal communities,” Levine said. “We don’t want people going in and making the mistakes of working in a top down or patronizing way. We wanted them to understand how to define their work with these communities by what these tribes need and want.”

Levine said the webinar stemmed from a 5-year partnership with the Department of Agriculture. The partnership provides ASBN with $35 million in USDA funding through the latter’s “Growing Grass Initiative,” a climate-focused commodities program. ASBN uses the money to support producers and foster conversations around regenerative agriculture with a focus on bison and cattle.

“The whole idea here is to increase the value and production of the regeneratively grazed beef and bison,” Levine said. “We’ve had conversations with the pet food and textile industries, because this project is focused on using the full animal. The connection here to business is to find the partnerships in the supply chain that can use these animals’ uptake.”

ASBN Director of Indigenous Partnerships and Inclusive Economy Terrius Harris (Ñuu Savi) said the organization also supports tribal producers directly. That support includes connecting tribes with new partners, or meeting specific producers’ needs on a case-by-case basis.

“From the producers’ side, we’ve seen a lot of joy for Native communities to be spotlighted,” Harris said. “They're seeing more opportunity and more focus [from federal and private partners,] which is really great.”

Federal interest and support

The BIA and USDA also made appearances during the webinar to discuss federal efforts in more detail. Principal Deputy Secretary of Indian Affairs Wizipan Garriott (Rosebud Sioux) called the bison resurgence the “fulfillment of a lifelong passion.” Federal initiatives have included an interagency bison management team, alongside committing $25 million to bison restoration projects since December 2022. 

In January, for example, Interior awarded $1.5 million in grants to three tribal communities for bison-related programs. The Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes in Oklahoma will use that money to double existing pasture areas for their 650-strong herd. The Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota will build a new 10,000 acre pasture. Finally, the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes of the Fort Hall Reservation in Idaho will expand their herd from 465 to 1,100.

These programs not only support tribal communities directly, Garriott said, but also bolster climate and ecosystem revitalization. 

“We know buffalo are a keystone species here,” Garriott said. “They have a symbiotic relationship with the grasslands. The best way to restore grasslands, unequivocally, is just to put buffalo on the land and let them do their job. That’s what the science tells us, which is just confirming what Native people have been saying for hundreds of years.” 

The Department of Agriculture has also played a role in the efforts, according to Heather Dawn Thompson (Cheyenne River Sioux), director of the USDA’s Office of Tribal Relations. 

The agency recently announced plans for purchasing bison for federal food distribution programs from Native producers. That’s on the back of $50 million to support new meat processing operations — an amount that fell well short of the need, Thompson said.

“We thought $50 million was a lot of money for that program,” Thompson said. “We had $300 million worth of applications, and so there’s obviously an unmet need here in the meat processing space.” 

Uplifting voices

The wave of federal support highlights how important bison have once again become to tribal communities, Levine said. That means conversations and collaborations like the webinar are “crucial” in building new relationships.

Funding from the $35 million partnership remains available for tribal producers or communities interested in starting those conversations, Levine said. The organization remains open to feedback on what support tribal producers need and how best to get it to them.

“We want to support buffalo restoration, not only for economic opportunities but as an important component of tribal communities,” Levine said. “We’re looking for new ways to provide that support: funds could be created for folks to donate into or invest in. We’re looking for lots of creative ways to connect investment and philanthropy with supply chain opportunities.”

Harris said ASBN’s efforts were meant to “uplift” Native voices so they could be heard where they were often silenced.

“We’re helping these Indigenous communities’ ideas be heard so their dreams can come true. It's a very awesome opportunity for us not just to bring private dollars, but to change the culture of the private sector,” Harris said. “We want to provide these businesses with the means to align with Native values and uplift the work.”

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About The Author
Chez Oxendine
Staff Writer
Chez Oxendine (Lumbee-Cheraw) is a staff writer for Tribal Business News. Based in Oklahoma, he focuses on broadband, Indigenous entrepreneurs, and federal policy. His journalism has been featured in Native News Online, Fort Gibson Times, Muskogee Phoenix, Baconian Magazine, and Oklahoma Magazine, among others.
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