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University of Lethbridge makes commitment to buffalo restoration

A member of the Piikani nation council signs the Buffalo Treaty, reaffirming the nation's commitment to the treaty, at the University of Lethbridge on March 9, 2023.  (Ose Irete/CBC - image credit)
A member of the Piikani nation council signs the Buffalo Treaty, reaffirming the nation's commitment to the treaty, at the University of Lethbridge on March 9, 2023. (Ose Irete/CBC - image credit)

On Wednesday morning the University of Lethbridge became the first post-secondary institution to sign the Buffalo Treaty of Cooperation Revival and Restoration.

The treaty hopes to "honour, recognize and revitalize" the relationship between people and buffalo. It highlights a commitment to buffalo conservation and acknowledges the animal's ecological and cultural significance.

The document was first signed by seven nations in 2014. The first signatories included the Piikani, Kainai, Siksika, and Tsuut'ina nations of Alberta and the Blackfeet Nation of Montana. Since then over 40 other nations in Canada and the United States have signed on. Institutions and individuals are also able to join as supporters.

Treaty worthy of celebration, says Vice Provost

"It's a momentous occasion for celebration," said Vice Provost, Iniskim Indigenous Relations Leroy Little Bear.

"It sets a precedent for other cities, schools and so on to do the same because in the long run we need to do something about our environment," said Little Bear.

Ose Irete/CBC
Ose Irete/CBC

According to the Wildlife Conservation Society Canada, there were between 30 to 60 million buffalo — or bison as they're also known — in North America during pre-colonial times. The animal was influential in shaping grassland ecosystems. By the late 1800s the population had massively dwindled due to over hunting and "indiscriminate slaughter."

The treaty makes a commitment to conservation efforts and recognizes the animal as a spiritual, economic and cultural resource.

University president Mike Mahon says this is another step in the school's strengthening relationships with Indigenous nations.

While addressing the crowd, Mahon noted the university has a history of strong relationships with Indigenous communities that stretches back to Little Bear's time spearheading the Indigenous studies department — one of Canada's first — in Lethbridge in the late 70s.

Ose Irete/CBC
Ose Irete/CBC

One of many buffalo connections for university

Little Bear says the university has always had a relationship with buffalo, from its Blackfoot name Iniskim, which means Sacred Buffalo Stone, to "The Buffalo" sculpture of the animal on a coulee south of university hall.

In 1982 student Reed Spencer created the sculpture for a class and placed it there expecting it to be removed. Instead the school community purchased it from Spencer and it has been a permanent fixture of the campus ever since.

It is also a full circle moment for Little Bear, since while the treaty was first signed in Montana, it was drafted on campus.

There were other signatories on hand: Mayor Blaine Higgin and several members of council were in attendance to sign on for the City of Lethbridge.

"I'm very happy that council and mayor would support this initiative," said Charlene Bruised Head-Mountain Horse, who is with the city's Indigenous relations office.

Ose Irete/CBC
Ose Irete/CBC

"I know there is a huge commitment within the city council plan to work on building positive relations with all Indigenous peoples here in the city of Lethbridge."

"So the symbolic nature of this is solidifying that there is a connection and continuation for that work to be done and it is a priority of our city council," she added.

After the event, many students and community members lined up to also sign the treaty.

The event was part of the university's Indigenous Awareness Week, which ends on March 10.