Buffalo Spirit

Free-roaming buffalo (aka American bison) at the Wild Idea ranch near Rapid City, South Dakota. Buffalo once ranged in the millions across roughly two-thirds of the North American continent and sustained Native communities for thousands of years. Photo by Dawnee Lebeau

Chris White Eagle is the plant manager at Wild Idea Buffalo Company, in Rapid City, South Dakota, which supplies meat from 100% grass-fed, free-roaming buffalo to Patagonia Provisions. White Eagle, a Cheyenne River Sioux (Lakota), talks about the importance of buffalo in his life, and in the lives of the kids he mentors.

My dad was a butcher. That’s initially what drew me to this line of work—I’ve worked all over the state in butchery. I’ve been with Wild Idea since around 2011. I started off steak cutting and worked my way all the way up, through every position. I know how to break down a buffalo start to finish. Chuck roast, brisket, flatiron, shank, I’ve cut and prepared it all. Buffalo is tougher to cut than cattle because the muscles are more dense, but I enjoy the challenge. Like with a plate steak: You have to go through the spine, take off the arm and take out the paddle bone—and while you’re doing it, you have to make sure you ain’t messing up the meat. It’s hard work!

White buffalo processing buildings in the snow
At the Wild Idea processing facility, Chris White Eagle and his team turn the massive whole buffalo into steaks, chops and many other cuts. For Chris, working with buffalo means much more than income; it’s a way to bring opportunity to his people and connect them to their culture. Photo by Dawnee Lebeau

I also work with buffalo because it goes back to our people. We are Buffalo Nation. These animals helped feed us and can feed us now. Buffalo bring other benefits too. I’m an urban Indian, and I remember the first time I picked sage. I was a teenager—this was a long time ago—and I just pulled it out by the roots. That really killed the plant. I was corrected by an elder: “Chris, what are you doing? You need to use scissors.” Then it grows back [stronger]. The buffalo know this. If you watch them, they don’t eat all the way down into the roots of the grass, just to the top of the soil. They help restore the land.

Wild Idea sees this, too. I’m at a point in my life where if I don’t like or respect a place, I won’t work for them. I’ve stuck around Wild Idea for this long in large part because the company lets buffalo do what buffalo do: Roam free. No feedlots and antibiotics. Here they don’t crowd them up and they don’t feed them corn or soybeans—the buffalo are 100% grass fed. Also, at other places, they load the animals on trucks and drive them to the processing plant. It’s inhumane. I stand behind Wild Idea’s humane harvesting, where we shoot them in the field while they’re grazing. No hauling live animals off in semis, no stress or suffering.

Wild Idea also gives me the opportunity to train our young Native men to be butchers and give them a chance to learn a trade. Two of them are my sons. It allows me to bring opportunity back to our people.

Chris and Clarence White Eagle stand inside a buffalo processing plant
Chris and his son Chance White Eagle ready to tackle the hard work of creating dozens of different cuts. Each dressed carcass weighs about 600 pounds. Chris’s son Chris Jr. also works alongside his father and brother at the Wild Idea plant. Photo by Dawnee Lebeau

Last fall, we did a traditional buffalo hunt. I run a teen center on the north side of Rapid City, and I literally had 46 kids out at the Wild Idea ranch, along with 18 adults. We got up at 4:30 in the morning, drove out there and had a ceremony—got to listen to those prayer songs. We formed a big prayer circle and smudged everybody off, and then we did the hunt.

A close shot of a buffalo on the prairie
At Wild Idea, buffalo live much as their ancestors did, moving freely across the prairie. The native grasses of the Great Plains—one of nature’s important carbon storage mechanisms—evolved to thrive with the light grazing habits, soil-tilling hooves and natural fertilizer inputs of free-roaming buffalo. Photo by Dawnee Lebeau

When we found the herd, a bull—one of our kolas (friends)—kept presenting himself and making that low buffalo rumbling. He’d just stand there, outside the herd.

Us adults were trying to keep the kids quiet — they all started pointing and saying, “Look at that one buffalo!” They were so excited. Meanwhile the medicine man was singing the whole time.

The bull went back into the herd, but we could still hear him rumbling. The third time he came out, that’s when the harvest team took him. The rest of the herd stayed calm.

We skinned the bull there in the field. I broke down the whole animal to teach the kids. The young girls in our group got to wipe it all down with sage. We took every part of the buffalo, even the hide—the kids are going to make drums out of it for a fundraiser. It was very, very spiritual. We left nothing but a blood stain on the prairie. We took everything.

Young women rub a fallen buffalo with sage
The girls from the youth center, led by Chris’s wife, Tara, rub the fallen buffalo with sage, a sacred cleansing herb. This ancient ceremony places the focus on the gift of the animal’s life. Next step: Chris demonstrates breaking down the animal into useable cuts, including long, thin slices for bapa, the traditional Lakota air-dried meat. Photo by Jill O’Brien

When I tell people in our community about the hunt, they’re like, “Whoa!” They’re just blown away. And then it blows their minds that the ranch owners are white. Native people, we don’t come across that many white people who are actually open-minded [about Native practices]. The thing is, all of this should be normal.

Here on the north side of Rapid City, we’ve always dealt with racism and still do today. On top of that, we’ve had to deal with losing our culture and our language, and the fact that urban Natives don’t always get to witness the spirituality part of being Native. We don’t fit within the white world because we’re Native, yet we can’t fit in on the rez because we’re what you’d call ‘McDonald’s Indians.’

My dad was a Sun Dance leader, from Northside, like me. One year during Sun Dance, he had a vision to bring our culture back to Northside. He did it for years through his Wambli Ska (White Eagle) Drum & Dance Society. He started off with just his CD player, at the back of the Woyota Lutheran Church. It got big enough to where they were doing powwows down at the Civic Center—at least a dozen drums, three to four hundred dancers. A couple thousand people came through at the big ones. My dad never got grant money, he never got donors. It was all out of pocket. He ended up passing away four years ago of a heart attack.

When my dad passed away, I was working two jobs—at Wild Idea and at the Club for Boys, as the older-boy coordinator. So I already had experience working with the youth before I stepped in to run the Wambli Ska center. We’ve still got the drum-and-dance society part of it, but now it’s based on basketball and all the other programs we provide. We’ve got a regalia-making room in there. We’ve got a little gym and even a recording studio. We also have a food bank. Every night, the kids come in and get a meal. We serve anywhere from 76 kids, which is the lowest number I can remember, to 126 kids every single day. Having this center, having resources and options—it’s important, especially for our people.

A group of Lakota families gather in the evening outside a youth center with large mural
At the Wambli Ska Youth Center in Rapid City, South Dakota, Lakota families gather to memorialize the 44 Native children who died at Rapid City’s Indian Boarding School. Following the U.S. government’s Civilization Fund Act in 1819 and for more than 150 years, hundreds of thousands of Native children were sent to government and church boarding schools aimed at destroying Indigenous language and culture. The horrific abuses they endured are only now coming to light. Photo courtesy of Chris White Eagle

It’s why I’m glad I can work at a place that provides both a job-training program for Native people and the chance for the hunt. We can give the next generation access to opportunities and our culture. Like in the field with that bull: I’m there with these skinny young kids, trying to teach them how to break down the animal. I could do the whole process from start to finish myself, but giving them the chance to participate and to learn—that’s the key. I was in their shoes when I was a young man, and I know the harsh realities of the life that we live. Working with the buffalo here, and alongside these kids, reminds me that there’s hope.

Chris White Eagle (He Sapa Wicasa Wambli Ska), an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux, manages the plant at Wild Idea Buffalo Company in Rapid City, South Dakota. White Eagle is the president of the Wambli Ska Society, a Native youth culture center in Rapid City. He also oversees a group that helps formerly incarcerated people transition back into society, and with his wife, Tara, finds community-service alternatives to imprisonment for Native kids. White Eagle lives in Rapid City with his family (at left).