Given America’s current obsession with “Indigenous superfoods,” it seems like the right time to share the secret of Blackfeet superiority: bison. As powerhouses of the Northwestern Plains, this animal was credited by the Pikuni with providing everything from our traditional lodges to our clothing to our impeccable physiques. Every part of Blackfeet life was saturated with the presence of the bison. (Even as a child, I had a stuffed bison rather than a teddy bear.)
OK, to be fair, every tribe within hunting distance of the Great Plains relied heavily on bison. However, in the Blackfeet food pyramid, bison formed the base. Prior to colonization, 90 percent of Pikuni calories came from this mammal. In real numbers, that means the average Blackfeet man consumed 2.5 pounds of bison jerky per day (that’s 7.5 lbs of fresh meat). While it was supplemented by a seasonal selection of fruit, roots, greens and other wild game, bison provided year-round supercharged nutrition.
Three ounces of bison meat contains 93 calories and 1.8 grams of fat, compared with 200 calories and 8.7 fat grams in the same amount of beef. It is lower in cholesterol and higher in nutrients, including beta carotene, protein and omega-3s. With macros like that, it’s no wonder other tribes avoided beefs with the Blackfeet. (See what I did there?)
While it is easy to consider how humans benefit from the consumption of certain foods, the environmental impact of our agricultural products is of equal importance. Native grasslands comprise more than 40 percent of North America’s natural landscape. The grasses serve as powerful carbon traps that remove CO2 from the atmosphere and return it to the soil through the root system. Through tens of thousands of years of continuous grazing by these ruminants, grasses and grazers developed a symbiotic relationship that is vital to the health of both.
Grasses across North America produce roughly one-third more growth each year than will naturally decompose. This excess growth chokes the soil and prevents healthy plant growth. Bison graze pastures, removing the choking cover and creating a healthier ecosystem.
Bison evolved as herd animals, with large, tightly packed groups moving quickly across the land. Grasslands thus evolved to thrive under conditions of brief severe grazing, hoof action and manuring followed by periods of rest and recovery. As bison graze, their hooves stir the soil, helping bury seeds and creating small divots in the earth that capture precious moisture. They are essentially edible aerators.
Today’s bison still graze in herds, moving across the land and only briefly stopping by watering holes, minimizing the damaging impact of hooves along riparian areas. Because bison are technically undomesticated, these instincts have not been bred out of them. Unfortunately, animals that were transplanted from the old world have long lost much of that natural behavior, and will commonly stand and graze in one spot, or lounge around stream beds and ponds. Cattle can be as destructive to the landscape as knapweed, though the former are less tolerant of Montana winters.
Unfortunately for bison, being both sacred and fueling indigenous dominance caused them to be a target. In the words of Army Lieutenant Colonel Richard Irving Dodge, “Every buffalo dead is another Indian gone.” An estimated 20 to 30 million bison once roamed the North American landscape. This population was reduced to just 1,091 by 1889. Through systematic recovery efforts, these animals are making a rebound, though they are essentially extinct in the wild (save for the herds in Yellowstone National Park). Today, approximately 500,000 bison live across the continent.
While bison is catching on as one of the healthiest meats you can buy, both for yourself and the earth, America has a long way to go to revitalize this local and sustainable food. Demand leads to innovation, especially in the world of culinary arts. Buying from producers that raise grass-fed bison sends a message of readiness across the agricultural sector.
Though bison were once critical to life on the plains, their benefits are now undervalued. According to the National Bison Association, approximately 61,300 bison were slaughtered for sale in the U.S. in 2016. When compared to 125,000 animals slaughtered per day in the beef sector, we find that Americans are missing an opportunity for a more sustainable and nutritious alternative. As a local food with ancient roots, this wonderfood has enormous potential to make the climb from “ironically exotic” back to “Montana staple.”
Though Blackfeet have been forcibly torn from our traditional chow, we (and many other tribes) are working to expand buffalo herds and processing facilities. Slowly but surely, we are revitalizing our foodways. From bison ribs on the grill to Tanka bars in the backpack, movements are being made. Some have even gone so far as attempting to decolonize the Indian Taco by using bison, bringing the total number of indigenous ingredients to one. As a city Indian, I’ll keep buying my bison at the local grocery store while I wait for more restaurants to catch on.
Mariah Gladstone is a food activist and the founder of Indigikitchen.
Butternut Bison Lasagna
1 lb ground bison
1 large butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch slices
1 15 oz. can tomato sauce
1 onion (or wild onion), minced
1 tsp garlic powder (or wild garlic)
1 tsp dried basil
1 tsp dried oregano
olive oil (or sunflower or avocado oil)
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
fresh mozzarella (optional)
Preheat your oven to 400 F.
Add bison to pan on med-high heat and cook until browned, about 6 minutes.
Add the tomato sauce, basil, garlic and onion, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Turn heat down to low and let simmer for about 10 minutes.
To prepare the lasagna: alternate layers of butternut squash slices with layers of the meat sauce in a baking dish. Keep making layers until you’ve used all of the ingredients.
Optional: top with fresh mozzarella (not indigenous) and basil.
Bake for about 60 minutes (or until the squash is soft).