FAIRBANKS - An Interior village leader looking for ways to supplement fish and game harvests says buffalo may be an alternative.
Randy Mayo, first chief of Stevens Village, wants to expand a village-owned buffalo reserve near Delta as a cooperative venture between villages of the Tanana Chiefs Conference.
Mayo introduced the co-op concept to village representatives last week during a meeting at the Stevens Village Buffalo Ranch, testing support before bringing the idea before TCC leadership.
"We have to find alternatives," said Julie Roberts-Hyslop of Tanana. "Native people have always provided. In the last 40 to 50 years, though, we taught our children differently. Now, with the cost of everything, they can't afford it. You have to change the way we look at food - the way it used to be isn't the way it is anymore."
She sees potential in a buffalo co-op and hopes the endeavor could teach young people to respect animals, avoid waste and share.
TCC President and CEO Jerry Isaac said buffalo could accomplish that and offer a solution to serious problems villages face in the high cost of energy, food and transportation.
"We're facing hard times, and by all indications it's going to get even harder," Isaac said. "We are sitting ducks."
In the past, moose and caribou were more abundant, he said. Alaska's food sources are highly vulnerable to natural and other disasters. It's time, he said, for villages to start looking out for themselves and prepare for the unexpected - a traditional Native practice.
"Our people, we've always been the consumptive part of society," he said. "We have to start thinking about production. We also need to see the spirituality, and we shouldn't be afraid to try new things."
Buffalo is new, at least to current generations, but is old in other ways.
"At one time, our people lived off woodland buffalo," Mayo said.
The late Chief David Salmon was the last to share direct oral histories of wood bison in Interior Alaska and the thin traces of words relating to buffalo are buried deep in the dialect, he said.
In 2002, tribal members voted to seek a 40-year loan to purchase 2,000 acres a dozen miles south of Delta for the buffalo ranch. Mayo and ranch resource manager Dewey Schwalenberg spent nine months persuading government agencies that Stevens Village was a tribe and eligible for a loan under the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Indian Tribal Land Acquisition Program.
The first of the their buffalo were released in May 2004.
Under Mayo's leadership, Stevens Village became a member of the InterTribal Bison Cooperative, a national organization with a mandate to return buffalo to Native people for cultural and ceremonial uses.
The herd grew, with only a few young bulls harvested for meat each year. Sixteen calves born in mid-April brought the herd total to 65.
The 2,000-acre ranch could support up to 300 head, Mayo said.
The food has supplied Stevens Village residents and was distributed last year to elders through Native nutritional programs.