Roughly 1,000 friends, family members and allies came together this past weekend to celebrate Buffalo Field Campaign cofounder Rosalie Little Thunder’s life and to mourn her death. She was buried in a bison robe in a cemetery atop a hill on South Dakota’s Rosebud Indian Reservation.
“It’s going to be really hard without her,” says Buffalo Field Campaign Executive Director Dan Brister.
The guidance Little Thunder provided BFC volunteers such as Brister prompted them to call her “Mom.” Little Thunder died Aug. 9, at age 64, after suffering a stroke. Despite weathering a series of health challenges, including triple bypass surgery in 2007, Little Thunder continued working to protect the environment and her Lakota culture until the day she died.
“She was really fired up about continuing to work and sharing ideas,” Brister says.
Little Thunder’s friends say that attitude was typical. After all, she still had a lot left to accomplish. She was a lifelong teacher of the Lakota language. This spring, she worked with the Cheyenne River Sioux to stop construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Though she was active on multiple fronts, Little Thunder spent decades trying to end the slaughter of North America’s last genetically pure free-roaming bison herd. The Yellowstone National Park herd today totals some 4,600 animals.
“The buffalo were her family,” Brister says. “It’s kind of hard for us in our culture to wrap our minds around that, but their culture was literally built around the buffalo.”
Before white settlers arrived to North America, bison were central to Lakota existence. In 1500, roughly 45 million bison inhabited the region and nearly every aspect of life for the Plains Indians depended on the animal. Its brain matter was used to tan buffalo hides, which were transformed into robes and teepees. Sinew was used for sewing; bones as tools. What little remained of the animal was returned to the earth, as Little Thunder wrote in a 1997 letter, “in prayer and gratitude for Creator’s gifts.”
In the winter of 1996 and 1997, the Montana Department of Livestock began hunting bison migrating out of Yellowstone National Park to help curb the transmission of brucellosis, a contagious disease that causes ungulates, including buffalo, cattle and elk, to miscarry. MDOL’s efforts horrified Little Thunder and prompted her to act.
She said the U.S. government’s efforts to eradicate bison already left them nearly extinct. Little Thunder and other hunt opponents also argued then, as they do now, that there’s never been a proven transmission of brucellosis from wild bison to cattle. Aiming to preserve the species, Little Thunder invited a delegation of American Indians, including Sioux holy man Arvol Looking Horse, to join her on March 6, 1997, in Gardiner for a national day of prayer. The sound of gun shots interrupted the ceremony.
“It turns out that 14 buffalo were killed less than two miles away from where the prayer was being conducted,” recalls BFC cofounder Mike Mease.
When Mease, Little Thunder and others tracked the shots, they found bison corpses and MDOL employees. Little Thunder later wrote of the scene, “Cast aside in the mud and blood was an unborn calf, gutted from the mother.”
Law enforcement threatened Little Thunder with arrest when she attempted to walk onto private property to pray over the downed animals. She went anyway and was cited for trespassing.
MDOL killed nearly 1,100 bison in 1997. To prevent the slaughter from happening again, Mease and Little Thunder formed what was then called Buffalo Nations, which later created the Buffalo Field Campaign. Buffalo Nations continued coordinating tribal opposition to the slaughter, while BFC brought on-the-ground resistance and documented the killing to help raise awareness.
Brister estimates 6,500 people have volunteered with BFC during the past 17 years, each of them taking part in Little Thunder’s legacy. Among BFC’s guiding principles is one articulated by Little Thunder: Bison are a cornerstone species, she said, and a barometer of overall environmental health. Allowing them to be killed off would constitute not just a blow to Plains Indians, but to the planet.
Despite an estimated 650 bison being captured and killed outside the park this winter, Brister sees BFC continuing to make slow progress. For example, he says there’s a pending proposal from state agencies to allow bison to roam on up to 421,000 acres of federal, state and private lands outside of the park. Brister also notes that rather than gunning down the animals outright, as MDOL did in the 1990s, it’s more likely now to chase the animals back into the park. BFC doesn’t support hazing, but Brister still calls it “one definite difference.”
Looking back on BFC’s past 17 years, Brister concedes the fight has been longer than he expected. When the campaign first launched, volunteers spoke hopefully about immediate goals.
“Back then, I think we were pretty naïve,” he says. “We had this idea that our being here with the video cameras and telling the world—showing the world what’s happening—you know, ‘We’re going to stop this in two or three years.’”
Little Thunder, however, knew the battle wouldn’t be over so quickly. Brister remembers what she said in response to BFC volunteer enthusiasm. He thinks about it often, he says, because what she said then still motivates him to continue the work she started.
“She looked at us and said, ‘This is a life’s work,’” Brister recalls. “This may not even be accomplished in our lifetimes.’”