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Learning from a ‘Life-Changing’ Bison Harvest

New program aims to bring legitimacy to Indigenous traditions in the academic community.

By Andrea Smith 16 Nov 2018 | TheTyee.ca

Andrea D. Smith is an intern with The Tyee as a part of Journalists for Human Rights’ Emerging Indigenous Reporter program. Contact her at .

“Even for me, it was so beautiful, and so amazing, and not like this violent thing that people might imagine… or the way Western slaughtering is done.”

For Karlee Fellner, a University of Calgary professor of Indigenous education counselling psychology, witnessing her first bison harvest on Blackfoot territory in Alberta was a profound experience.

It happened during the Poo’miikapii program’s first run last year. Poo’miikapii (full name “Poo’miikapii: Niitsitapii Approaches to Wellness”) is a program Fellner created for the University of Calgary’s Werklund School of Education.

It’s a single course topic that can be taken alone as a certificate program or with other topics to go towards a full M. Ed.

Poo’mikapii is a Blackfoot phrase that means “collective harmony, unity, and balance” in English. The program is based around Blackfoot traditions in health and wellness with the goal of helping educate educators, so they can use it in their work.

But it doubles as a way to legitimize this knowledge in the mainstream, as well as help people with Blackfoot ancestry reconnect with the culture if they’ve lost it.

Fellner felt it would be a good response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action, particularly those under the category of health, which call for recognition of the importance of Indigenous knowledge and ways to bring it to the professional sphere.

Fellner, who is Métis and Cree, sat down with Roy Weasel Fat, a Blackfoot elder and president of Red Crow Community College, Canada’s first tribal college, and they planned the course over coffee in the fall of 2016. Later, a team of Blackfoot elders known as the college’s Eminent Scholars helped her craft the course content.

The program, which takes place primarily on Kainai Nation territory in southern Alberta, is teaching Blackfoot traditions around wellness and mental heath. Students can use it to inform their work after graduating.

The bison harvest was important to include because of its immense cultural significance to the Blackfoot people, Fellner said. The Blackfoot communities relied on the bison for not only food, but for tools and cultural items too, said Fellner.

“It was the centre of Blackfoot life,” she said.

One well-known method of traditionally harvesting bison in Alberta — but not the only one — was the use of the “buffalo jump.” This involved driving the buffalo over the edge of a small cliff where they would fall to their deaths. Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump sits on Blackfoot territory near Fort MacLeod and is a designated UNESCO heritage site.

‘Overwhelming gratitude’

This year’s bison harvest took place on the Blackfeet Nation territory in Montana. The people of this nation call themselves the Amskapi Pikuni and share traditions and the language with the three Blackfoot Nations in Alberta (Piikani, Siksika, and Kainai).

Preparing for her first harvest experience in 2017, Fellner said she was worried she might not “be able to handle it.”

But she was surprised how natural the experience was.

A sweat lodge ceremony the night before played a large role, she said. One of the students sharing the experience offered a prayer that the bison’s death be quick and painless.

When it was time for the killing, Fellner’s timing was nearly “miraculous,” she said. She and about 35 other people, including students, teachers, family members of students, and elders were standing around the corral, which the lone bison had been placed in. She had just turned away from it for a split second when the kill shot was fired. She was grateful to have missed it.

She had been hesitant about participating. “I was like ‘OK, I’m only going because I’m the instructor,’ but it was a life-changing experience for me. It’s this overwhelming gratitude that I can’t even put words to. And that’s something the students also talked about, and it was bringing them to tears,” she said.

The harvests between the two years differed slightly — last year a single bison was made to travel to Standoff from the Tsuu T’ina First Nation southwest of Calgary, while this year the Poo’miikapii crew went to Montana, so the bison was shot while still within the herd it came from.

There is magic in that process, too, said Fellner, describing how her colleague who shot this year’s bison says the bison to be harvested decides itself, that it’s “the one” that steps forward from the herd at the time of the harvest.

After the kill, the group cuts the bison apart together, guided by elders and instructors while sharing their gratitude for the sacrifice.

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Karlee Fellner at the bison harvest. Photo submitted.

“There’s something powerful about having that relationship with what ends up being food… I don’t even want to call it ‘food,’ because it feels like it takes that power away from it,” Fellner added.

Fellner was not alone in feeling the power of the experience. A student, Sherri Rinkel Mackay, wrote a paper about it that moved Fellner to tears.

While Fellner wasn’t facing the bison as it was shot, Rinkel Mackay was. A classmate said a prayer for the bison and then placed tobacco on the ground, which seemed to calm the frenzied bison, Rinkel Mackay said.

“She was pacing around. And when he prayed, she calmed right down. She turned to the side to give our classmate a clean shot. I know that sounds magical and mystical, and it was,” she said.

From Mackay’s new knowledge of Blackfoot culture, this shouldn’t really be surprising, she said. Blackfoot Ways of Knowing, a book written by Betty Bastien, another instructor in the program, says that everyone has a gift to share with the larger community. The bison was offering what it could, she said.

Rinkel Mackay has since found herself contemplating her own gifts. She’s been struggling with a health issue and had a golf-ball-sized tumour removed from her heart three years ago. But something in her shifted, she said, when she took the still warm bison heart — in a plastic bag — and held it against her chest next to her own heart.

“I can’t really find the words to tell you how it impacted me spiritually, to have that warm heart against my chest… I know it impacted me, and changed me, and it was kind of like the warmth of that bison heart strengthened me and gave me courage to continue,” she said.

As she was holding it, an elder walked over to her and told her it was a blessing to eat the bison heart, while it was still fresh and raw.

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Sherri Rinkel Mackay, with Karlee Fellner, at the bison harvest. Photo submitted.

“He gave me a knife and instructed me to take the heart around and offer it to my classmates. It was an amazing experience. I took a piece of that heart, and I ate it… and to put it into context, I’m a vegan,” she said.

‘Bison are really special’

Lauren Monroe Jr. is the community coordinator for the Poo’mikapii program, an instructor in Blackfoot history and politics, a filmmaker, and a member of the Amskapi Pikuni. He helped facilitate the harvest and talked to the students about the parts of the buffalo and their uses, while cutting the meat.

“Personally, I’ve been hunting since I was 13 years old… deer, elk, and things like that. Harvesting the bison itself is such a different experience. It’s really emotional. I can’t explain it. Bison are really special,” he said.

Monroe said the harvest includes a ceremony, with songs and prayers. The animal is thanked for its contribution to the lives of the people it feeds — a stark contrast to Western consumer mentality around meat animals, he noted. He couldn’t share all the details because of its sacredness to his community.

The Blackfeet Nation right now is working with the U.S. government, the Montana government and officials in Canada to develop a release plan that will see wild bison (hopefully) roam freely across Blackfoot territory in the next few years.

The bison they have now are genetically mixed with cows, but they’ll source the wild bison from Elk Island National Park in Alberta, which are still pure, he said. These bison originally came from Montana anyway, he added.

“As Blackfoot people, the bison were extremely important to us, and we’re always trying to renew that relationship. And it’s only the last 100 years that we lost that relationship, but we’re getting it back,” Monroe said.

Decolonizing academia

For Fellner, one of her greatest challenges is bringing legitimacy to Indigenous traditions in the academic community. She’s forced to use a certain kind of language in applying for grants and publishing her own academic work, and it’s not always consistent with the Indigenous approach to knowledge.

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At the bison harvest. Photo submitted.

It’s frustrating, but also rewarding when she finds success.

“Essentially, it’s my job. It’s the life I’ve created for myself because my work focuses on Indigenous wellness and traditional approaches to wellness, spirituality, and spirit. That’s where I see myself as being a translator, which I think is one of the gifts of being Métis,” she said.

Before launching the Poo’miikapii program, Fellner produced her PhD thesis outlining seven major themes in Indigenous wellness. She used that to inform the university about the importance of this knowledge.

The program is expensive for the university because of where the course takes place and the materials needed (like an entire bison), she acknowledged. But it’s meaningful enough to keep her charging ahead.

“That’s what I love about it… these students are getting university credit for learning Blackfoot traditions in wellness,” she said. “It just shows this knowledge is valued. Being valued enough that someone is getting graduate school credit for it. As they should.”  [Tyee]

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