The driving force behind The West is Dead is our mission to preserve, protect, and reclaim the American West. As often as we can, we'll be working with different organizations championing this cause
For our first partnership, it was only fitting that we join forces with a group whose mission involves the reestablishment of the symbolic animal we chose as our trademark: the American Buffalo. This season we have aligned ourselves with an organization called the Intertribal Buffalo Council (ITBC), a cooperative of 57 American Indian nations and over 15,000 head of buffalo. Endorsed by the Wildlife Conservation Society, the ITBC is a non-profit organization established in 1990 to coordinate and assist American Indian tribes returning the buffalo to their native lands.
Earlier this year we had a chance to spend some time in Browning, Montana, heart of the Blackfeet Nation, learning about the ITBC and seeing first hand the powerful effect buffalo have on the entire community.
We also had the opportunity to speak with Chief Earl Old Person. Having held countless positions among the American Indian community, including president of The National Congress of American Indians, he is one of the most well-known and respected Elders alive today. Our time with Chief Old Person was a moving experience we will never forget.
Together with our customers, we proudly support the ITBC and other groups fighting to reclaim the West.
On our journey we were joined by our good friend and writer Colin Scott. Colin was kind enough to write a piece about our time in Browning and he's summed it up far more eloquently than we ever could. Here is his piece.
Welcome to Indian Country
Browning, Montana. The capitol of the Blackfeet Nation. The heart of Indian Country. Where the Reservation is the Rez and the “g” in Browning is silent. Where a zero degree day with eighty mile per hour winds is a considered pleasant. Where a buffalo is a buffalo, not a bison, and they are everything.
Browning, Montana, located on the Eastern slope of the Montana Rockies, the Backbone of the World as the Blackfeet refer to them. An impenetrable blade of ridges stretching across the western horizon, giving rise to one of the most severe weather systems in the nation. Browning holds the United States record for the greatest temperature change in a twenty four hour period, where the mercury fell from 44 F to -56 F in just a single day.
The wind, a constant presence, batters the town with gusts upwards of one hundred miles per hour. Relentless in its assault, the wind makes it too loud to speak, too hard to think and far too chilling to keep warm.
“Only the Blackfeet and the buffalo can survive out here,” Ervin Carlson, President of the Intertribal Buffalo Council shouted as he turned and put his head into the wind, shadowing a massive bull buffalo behind him. Ervin's words were quickly swept away by the gusts but they resonated long enough to register and as I stamped my foot trying to get the sensation to return to my toes I began to understand just how true that statement seemed to be.
Browning was indeed not a place for the faint of heart. After two days of battling the wind and a short stay at the Warbonnet Motel I had become painfully aware that no semblance of Native blood coursed through these veins.. Despite the hostile nature of the land, the Blackfeet people survived and remained to fight out the harsh winters year after year. That however, did not seem to come without a price.
Browning, the town of 20,000, has a crippling unemployment rate of 75%, a crime rate five times that than the rest of Montana, exceptionally high rates of drug and alcohol abuse and a staggering number of deaths per year as a result of diabetes and heart disease.
Ervin Carlson and Chief Earl Old Person, Chief of the Blackfeet Nation both attribute much of the tribes current problems to a lack of identity. The Blackfeet struggle to hold onto the ways of the past, a life steeped in tradition, which Old Person describes as, “a harsh life but a good life.” Old Person has growing concerns that a people who not long ago all spoke Blackfeet and hunted for their food now go to Walmart for their meals and only a handful of elders remain who still speak the language.
At a point of crisis when many nations would be calling for aid, the Blackfeet Nation looks to itself, consulting some of its wisest elders and brightest members for solutions. Chief Old Person and Ervin Carlson, two of the tribes wisest and brightest, have sought out not a new solution to remedy the Blackfeet problems but rather have turned back to a creature which has been everything to their people since the beginning of their existence. The buffalo.
The buffalo has served as a source of food, shelter, pride and medicine for the Blackfeet since their beginnings as a culture. It is only fitting that it's the buffalo who pulls them out of their current state of affairs.
As President of the Intertribal Buffalo Council, a coalition of 57 tribes throughout the U.S, Ervin Carlson is committed to restoring buffalo back to Indian lands. The hope of returning this animal to it's native lands is to regain a state of tribal sovereignty and self sufficiency. The ITBC currently holds one million acres of land for raising herds of numbers nearing 15,000. The Blackfeet hold the largest share of land and bison and are spearheading the effort.
Carlson urges that not only will the leaner bison meat as opposed to fatty marbled beef, found in today's supermarkets, help remedy the tribal epidemic of diabetes and heart disease but that the buffalo will help tribal members reconnect with the ways of the past. A herd of roughly seven hundred head of buffalo currently roam near the town of Browning.
Carlson believes that the buffalo's return to Indian land serves as a source of pride for the Blackfeet, something they can look up and see everyday and be taken back to the old ways. “After all,” Carlson says, “the biggest thing is getting back to our culture. We don't want to be like everyone else. We want to only be developed enough to support our people.”
Chief Old Person believes that life on the Reservation is getting better due to the efforts of people like Ervin Carlson and organizations like the ITBC. Old Person reiterates however that the Blackfeet have a long way to go and if this improvement stagnates or falters than the ways of the past, a life, a culture lived among the buffalo will forever be lost and forgotten.