Leroy Little Bear puts keystone species in spotlight at HSD Engage

Leroy Little Bear
Esteemed Blackfoot researcher Leroy Little Bear. Images: Estelle Carmona

"All over, especially in the Plains, the buffalo are coming back." 

Esteemed Blackfoot researcher, educator and First Nations advocate Leroy Little Bear brought a message of resurgence, cooperation and hope to the Faculty of Human and Social Development’s (HSD) HSD Engage: The Buffalo Treaty event held Nov. 2 at UVic’s First Peoples House. 

A professor emeritus and a founding member of Canada's first Native American Studies Department at the University of Lethbridge, Little Bear’s talk focused on the origin, significance and progress of the Buffalo Treaty, signed in 2014 by First Nations on both sides of the US-Canada border. 

Little Bear explained how the first such treaty in 150 years came about, after five years of dialogue between Elders who wanted the keystone species that once dominated the Great Plains brought back, especially for First Nations youth.

“The concern of the Elders was that being from the Plains, our relationship with these buffalo was so close that our songs, our stories, our ceremonies were based on that relationship between the buffalo and us, so much so we could say that we are the buffalo and the buffalo is us,” Little Bear said.

“We tell those stories to the young, they hear the stories, they hear the songs, sometimes they’re participating in the ceremonies, but when you look out there there’s no buffalo to be seen.”

Thanks to the Buffalo Treaty, that reality is changing.

Little Bear offered several examples of the buffalo returning to areas where the largest animal on the continent was once plentiful, including Banff National Park, where more than 80 bison roam freely after an absence of more than a century. South of Canada’s border, the Rosebud Sioux tribe in South Dakota is on track to reach their goal of 1,200 buffalo within the year. And last year, the US Government transferred the National Bison Range in Montana back to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.  

“The buffalo is the best environmentalist you can have,” Little Bear says. “Where the buffalo roams, it brings back birds and plants and other animals and so on. In other words, it becomes an eco-engineer, a bio-engineer that helps to bring back that eco balance.”

Little Bear likened a keystone species to a superstar athlete on a professional sports team. The team is built around them, he says, but when the superstar leaves, the team crumbles. 

“The ecological imbalance brought about by the disappearance of a keystone species like the buffalo, we can say the same thing about the salmon over here,” he says.

The buffalo is also a keystone species for culture as well as conservation. Little Bear says the return if the buffalo has revitalized education, with the introduction of buffalo curriculum in schools, as well as language, and one day economics.

“Now the buffalo are coming back, we’re starting to make use of that language again, to revitalize, rejuvenate and bring back the memory with regard to language,” he says. 

HSD Engage Buffalo Treaty

School of Indigenous Governance Associate Professor Gina Starblanket (pictured left to right with Amethyst First Rider, Leroy Little Bear and Acting Associate Dean Research Hōkūlani Aikau) facilitated the talk as part of HSD Engage. The speaker series brings researchers from HSD together with communities to explore issues that contribute towards building just, equitable, decolonial and sustainable futures.

Starblanket, who introduced Little Bear to the audience, says his work has been hugely influential for scholars in Indigenous Governance at UVic and beyond. 

“One of the things we’re trying to do in our approach to Indigenous Governance is to really enact the theories and ideas and visions and political commitments that we talk about every day,” says Starblanket. 

“Leroy’s insights have been so crucial in how to dislodge some of our western ideas of the political, political institutions and who political actors are … and has changed [how] we think about what Indigenous political life can and should look like.”

The event ended with questions from the audience, with Little Bear raising the idea of a water treaty to support the resurgence of salmon in the west.

HSD’s next HSD Engage event will be hosted in the spring.