Justin Fivella

At one time the ground thundered in America as over 30 million tatanka rumbled through the land. Standing 12 feet tall, these great creatures easily pushed through the grass of the great plains that once stood as tall as a man on horseback.

The tatanka, commonly known as the North American buffalo or bison, have since evolved into the smaller species that they are today. Like the tatanka, the once vast ecosystem of the great plains of America have shrunk due to the destruction of the delicate ecosystem and the symbiotic relationships the bison, the land and the native people once had, said Lakota American Indian tribe member James Garrett.

Garrett explained in his presentation entitled, “The Northern Great Plains: Bison, Native Plants and Native People” on Thursday that the once ecologically diverse plains that stretched from Colorado to Missouri have now been virtually destroyed.

“About 99.9 percent of the tallgrass plains are gone, though you can find the shorter grasses and medium grasses still, the grasses as tall as a man on horseback can only be found in the Konza Research Area in the Flint Hills,” Garrett said.

With soil rich in nutrients and an ecosystem that rarely floods or droughts, early settlers found the land perfect for farming and quickly destroyed the untouched land for agricultural uses to fuel the country.

“In place of the great plains, farmers planted the corn that feeds our nation and that we use as trade” Garrett said. “The plains were taken away to provide the corn that has helped our nation become so strong.”

Like the vast plains that once stretched across America, at one time the tatanka’s numbers reached into the millions.

“Conservatively, there used to be between 30 and 50 million buffalo on the plains,” Garrett said. “By the 1890s there were only a few different herds left and Yellowstone Park only had 24 left.”

Though the number of bison has since increased through captive breeding programs, Garrett said that the once delicate relationship between the humans, bison and nature has been destroyed and that unless the livestock are removed from the plains, they will continue to destroy them by continually overeating all of the plants.

“The cattle continue to pound the ecosystem by eating everything up,” Garrett said. Unlike the cattle, the bison leave the seed-spreading flowers and instead eat the other grasses, therefore keeping the ecosystem intact, he said.

Garrett explained that the tatanka only ate what they needed, nourished the land by tilling the soil with their hooves and provided themselves as food for the tribes. Like the bison, the humans helped the ecosystem by “disturbing” the land and redistributing seeds through processes like fire, thus providing more food for the bison and increasing the production of plant life. Completing the ecosystem cycle, the plants provided food for both the bison and the tribes in addition to serving as medicine and material among many other uses for the Indians.

“The Indians used more than 300 of the 1,500 plants that make up the plains,” Garrett said. The American Indians also never wasted the bison they killed as they had more than 200 uses for the corpses – a far cry from the wasteful nature of modern society, he said.

Garrett blamed the lack of the spiritual entity in conventional science as the reason why modern scientists cannot decipher what the American Indians believe and said that many of the science experiments that have been conducted have achieved the same results the American Indians had already described.

Some in the audience agreed with Garrett that the spiritual side of the American Indian beliefs can’t be overlooked.

“I was impressed with connection he made between the bison, plants and humans and that life on the plains has all three interconnected and that when one is out of sync, it throws the other two off as well,” ethnic studies professor Aaron Rodrigues said. He added that a quantitative mind doesn’t compute the significance of the spiritual side.

Despite the immense damage that has been done to the delicate ecosystem and the relationships of the tatanka, humans and the land, Garrett hopes that one day the land can return to way it was when over 30 million tatanka roamed the plains.

“The wildlife on the plains used to be so great in numbers and diversity that it was said to be more spectacular than the Serengeti,” Garrett said.

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