Deep in the green, rolling hills of Delaware County, history comes to life. The Cherokee Nation's buffalo herd is thriving, watched over by tribal members like Chris Barnhart.
"Oh, I see a future. I see a herd that's growing," Chris Barnhard, regional board member for the InterTribal Buffalo Council said. "And you can also look into it and see the past as well."
He and the team of caretakers are thrilled to see another calf born to a cow sometime during the weekend of April 23. This calf marks the eighth birth so far this spring. In the two years since starting this operation, this herd has grown to 116 cows, calves and bulls. They are thriving in a place they have not been seen since the 1970s when the tribe kept a few head of bison for tourists to view.
The sounds of bison grazing and the occasional snort of a buffalo cow watching over her calf are only disturbed by the sound of welding. Across the pasture, welding crews tackle a massive project. It is a $350,000 highly reinforced holding facility that is expected to keep the powerful, unpredictable buffalo, and the humans who care for them, safe during health checks, weaning, sorting, blood work and genetic testing. Designed in a way to put the least amount of stress on these wild animals, tribal leaders and caretakers envision this as the first step toward a larger, environmentally sensitive operation.
They plan for the future and measure out plans for growth, jobs for tribal members and a draw for tourism. Secretary of State Chuck Hoskins, Jr. told 2 Works for You anchor Karen Larsen Chief Bill John Baker envisions production and prosperity.
"There's just so many parts of this operation that can help our people," Chuck Hoskins said. "Jobs. Bringing in revenue. A chance to connect with nature. It's just a win all around."
With 22,000 acres of land owned by the tribe, the herd has plenty of room to grow both naturally, and with possible additions from National Parks in North and South Dakota.
"I like to think that they enjoy it better here," Barnhart said with a smile as he watched over the herd from inside his pickup truck.
As a regional board member, Barnart and other members of the Intertribal Buffalo Council help manage more bison than all of the national parks combined. The ITBC consists of 60 tribes managing 52 herds. More than 20,000 head of bison in all. The organization developed a mission statement that reads, "Restoring buffalo to the Indian Country, to preserve our historical, cultural, traditional and spiritual relationship for future generations."
As one who spends his time watching over the Green Country herd, Larsen suggested Chris Barnhart may be the luckiest man in the Cherokee Nation.
"I've heard that a time or two," Barnhart said, laughing quietly. "I think I might be as well."
Lucky to care for these massive, majestic beasts that provided food, clothing, tools and shelter for his ancestors.
"This animal gave them life," Barnart added. "To be able to help bring their numbers back and be able to see it grow and flourish here. It is an honor."