A 30-Year Journey to Bring Back Bison

76-year-old Charles “Red” Gates says he often gets the credit for getting bison into the food packages, but he’s quick to assert that it was a team effort.

76-year-old Charles “Red” Gates says he often gets the credit for getting bison into the food packages, but he’s quick to assert that it was a team effort.

When a storm comes in, the powerful buffalo can be seen facing the wind – resilient and steadfast in its strength. In much the same way, Charles “Red” Gates and his collaborators and partners throughout Indian Country have stood strong in their own resolve. Throughout a journey lasting over 30 years, they have led the return of buffalo to their nutrition and economy and have made a strong and lasting foothold toward food sovereignty for Native communities everywhere, despite the many storms before them.

Starting out

Gates was hired by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota and South Dakota as a bookkeeper in 1969 and through the years has held many positions in finance, planning and grant writing. In 1982, he became Standing Rock’s Director of the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), a national program created in response to the Food Stamp Act of 1976. Gates explains that the Act mandated the provision of food stamps for low-income families nationwide. The bad news: These stamps weren’t meant for use on Indian Reservations, as they were only good at select stores. For tribes in rural areas like North and South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana, and for those on the Standing Rock Sioux Nation, which spreads across 2.5 million acres, this meant hours of travel to the nearest food source.

In response, several tribes approached Congress, explaining how the Act violated treaties and did not work for Native people. Congress agreed and redrafted the Food Stamp Act of 1977, reinstating the commodity program for reservations. Prior to this law, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe was provided rationed food pursuant to the treaties.

While this was a battle won for Indian Country, the winning prize had its downsides. The commodities were delivered to reservations, but internal systems of distribution were still needed. Food packages were based on income and not family size, so supplies rarely lasted the full month. And perhaps the direst aspect was that package contents were based on surplus items – the remaining foods available after demand elsewhere were met. This meant canned foods, foods of the lowest quality, and meats from surplus animals and not the prime cuts.

The result over time: Obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

“When you hear people talk about poor health outcomes in Native communities, it’s attributed to these packages,” says Gates. “These rations introduced us to the White Man’s food.”

Indeed, in the packages regularly were canned pork, canned chicken, canned beef, flour, and lard. For the people of Standing Rock what was missing was fruits, vegetables, and fresh meat, specifically bison. “We were the Buffalo Nation – our reliance was on the buffalo,” he says.

A battle before them

 Gates explains that he himself was in fact 10 years old when he saw his first buffalo. Still, when he took the position as FDPIR Director for the Tribe, he knew the packages were delivering trouble.

“It was all based on the surplus market,” he says. “When things weren’t going well, we got a surplus. If there was a shortage elsewhere, they would take it away. It was constantly changing. It was never growing, and it for sure wasn’t healthy.”

In 1989, he received an invitation to an organizing meeting for Oklahoma and New Mexico  Tribes, who were coming together to discuss the commodity program for their regions. Gates attended the meeting, in which the National Association of FDPIR was formed, and Gates was elected the alternate VP for the Mountain Plains Region. He took over as VP a year later when the elected VP stepped down.

Meanwhile, back at Standing Rock, he continued to see the injustices of the monthly packages. He says one day he was walking by the kitchen when his wife was preparing the canned meats. He saw the fat and white tissue and blood vessels in the pot. “I asked, ‘what’s that?’ and she said, ‘This is what it looks like, this is what I throw away. The rest, I cook off, which ends up being half the can.’”

By the late 1980s, there was growing concern nationwide about hunger, especially for Indian Reservations. A Hunger Relief Committee was formed, which ultimately led to the Mickey Leland Memorial Domestic Hunger Relief Act of 1990. In reviewing the legislation, Congress chose Standing Rock for an on-site hearing. Here, Gates took the opportunity to stage the opening of one of the cans of meat in front of Congressmen, the press, inspectors, and investigators.

“‘What’s that smell?’ they asked me,” says Gates. Indeed, under the pure fat cap, there were blood vessels, white tissues between muscles, and a bad odor. “Sometimes there are bones, but not today, I told them,” Gates says.

He says one congressman said, “I would not feed that to my dog.” And three more people ran out of the door and vomited.

A close-up on Red’s computer is always a reminder of the importance and power of the Buffalo.

A close-up on Red’s computer is always a reminder of the importance and power of the Buffalo.

Roadblocks and after roadblocks

Certainly, the presentation was eye-opening for Congress. And it led to slow and gradual improvements that would one day elevate the FDPIR. Still, getting there was not without challenges and Gates says he was “ready for a long fight.”

Some opposition came from the Tribe itself. Gate says some people didn’t want to call further attention to the issue because they feared the government would retaliate. Some reporters ran headlines proclaiming “Indians complain about free food.”

On the outside, Congress called for immediate study and investigation of the FDPIR foods, but there remained evaluators who believed the canned meat would be good if you just hid it under some barbecue sauce. Gates was asked to speak at follow-up meetings but was told not to bring up the canned meat issue.

Despite this storm, he and his colleagues in the NAFDPIR persisted. Initial successes included cleaning up the canned meats and introducing ground beef, fruits, and vegetables into the packages. But as the battle wore on other challenges continued to arise, and when Gates was ultimately able to introduce the idea of buffalo, the laundry list of opposition continued:

  • Did they have the freezer space to accommodate ground beef, let alone buffalo? “They treated us like we didn’t even know what freezers were,” he says.
  • How would Tribes accommodate for the shorter shelf life? Because bison is leaner than beef, were tribes prepared to store and cook it properly?
  • How much was the actual surplus of buffalo when the national demand was increasingly growing?
  • And finally, what about the bison itself? Gates and his colleagues were told that the food packages could contain meat only from domesticated animals. Buffalo, they said, was not a domestic animal and could not be considered a food source.

Through years of questions and challenges like these, Gates stood strong. And finally, in 1996, buffalo was incorporated into the FDPIR food packages at Standing Rock.

Red says he owns many pieces of art reflecting the buffalo. One favorite is this metal buffalo skull sculpture created by Red’s son Steve.

Red says he owns many pieces of art reflecting the buffalo. One favorite is this metal buffalo skull sculpture created by Red’s son Steve.

 Bison, at last

It was certainly a win. Standing Rock stood up to federal regulations and buffalo was returned to their Native diets. But through the next 15 years, the landscape of FDPIR and bison would continue to evolve. There were ongoing challenges surrounding Native versus non-Native ranchers. What were ranchers feeding the bison, and were Native communities getting the prime meat or just the “trim”? Were the slaughterhouses approved by the government and did they have humane slaughtering practices? Were they Native-owned and, if not, did they honor every part of the sacred buffalo?

Through it all, Gates kept up his leadership role with FDPIR. And by then, he had become the president and would go on to serve three additional terms. He continued to advocate for the health and nutrition of his Tribe and for the permanency of buffalo in the Native food packages. He held firm through the politics of ranchers, outsiders, and supply and demand, while at the same time protecting herd populations and opening the minds and tastes of Standing Rock youth, who he says have grown up on McDonalds and Ramen Noodles.

Paving the path

Today, Gates is 76 years old. He has worked for the Tribe for 50 years. He has nine children, 48 grandchildren, and 11 great-grandchildren. He remains active as a historian and on the board of the NAFDPIR. His story of returning buffalo to the Buffalo Nation is one he’s asked to tell repeatedly, and his work at Standing Rock and the FDPIR has created a blueprint for other Tribes seeking to incorporate their own Native foods, from blue cornmeal to salmon to wild rice. Further, it has instigated new models like the Tribal Leaders Workgroup, which is helping guide the 2019 Farm Bill and other legislation.

“We created a domino effect,” he says. “Now it seems like the whole nation is listening to us.”

Indeed, food sovereignty is a growing topic in Indian Country, and its roots date back to before it was even considered a term. Returning bison to the Buffalo Nation represents some of the earliest progress in restoring Native foods, creating independence, and improving health outcomes. For Native communities, it is a testament to the feats that can be accomplished through funding, collaboration, and vision. For First Nations, it is a call for further investments in Native food sovereignty. It is a message to funders that progress happens, but more help is always needed to help other Native communities up against similar battles.

And for Gates, the return of bison is the achievement of a personal mission. “People think I’m something I’m not,” he says. “But I’m just the person who took the initiative. It’s been a long journey involving a lot of different people.” And today, still standing strong with Standing Rock, together, they are facing the next storm.

By Amy Jakober