Long before people settled North America and centuries before Taos Pueblo had its own herd, millions of bison once roamed the grasslands of the American West.
Weighing up to 2,400 pounds and standing about 6 feet tall at the shoulder, bison appear to lumber, yet are surprisingly quick. In fact, bison can run up to 35 miles an hour, rushing in to defend their calves or when humans get too close.
Theirs is a matriarchal society, explained Richard Archuleta, a past Taos Pueblo war chief and former Bison Program manager through the Taos Pueblo Department of Natural Resources. "The cows make the decisions and the bulls just kinda hang out. The mothers are very protective. There are coyotes and dogs out there – if they think there's a threat, the calves are circled by the cows and the young bulls position themselves out a little farther. It's the young bulls who will charge the threat."
Bison have an inborn survival mechanism, which is to get their legs under them as quickly as possible, and Archuleta has seen that instinct in action when he witnessed a birth. "From the time she dropped it, to after cleaning it with her tongue, and the calf moved and stood up was 30 minutes," he shared.
The history of bison is coiled around American Indian adversity in the West. Abundant bison influenced American Indian tribes to settle in the grasslands. Native peoples came to rely on the mammal for everything from food and clothing to shelter and religious worship. (Today, most tribes still have a dance or ritual honoring bison. Taos Pueblo's Buffalo Dance is held every Jan. 6 and is open to the public.) They used almost every part of the animal, including horns, fat, hides, meat and tail hairs.
By the 1800s, horses provided American Indians a way to chase down bison, which expanded their hunting range. But the introduction of rifles and handguns by white fur trappers and traders killed an uncountable number of bison – just for the hides.
By the middle of the 19th century, even train passengers were shooting the animals from the safety of the cars – just for sport. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who was hired to kill bison, destroyed more than 4,000 of them in just a couple of years. Bison were a main feature of his popular “Wild West” show.
To make matters worse, history documents show that U.S. government officials actively slaughtered wild bison to defeat the American Indians who stood up to the white settlers trying to take their land.
American military commanders even ordered troops to shoot bison to deny American Indians an important food source.
"They were trying to get rid of the 'Indian problem' by getting rid of the main food source," Archuleta said.
Because of that plight, the last known hunting excursion from Taos Pueblo was in 1888, when a group headed for the eastern plains, Archuleta told. Hunting groups were often gone for two to three months.
They were typically guided by individuals. Sometimes, the war chief would lead. They dried the meat before returning so that it did not rot in the hot sun. Archuleta is not sure if bison roamed the valley. Traditionally, "tribal members found them in the plains – the tall grasslands – all the way into the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles," he said.
After 1888, while traveling the plains, Taos Pueblo men happened to meet a successful Texas rancher named Charles Goodnight. Called the "father of the Texas Panhandle," Goodnight had a booming ranch in Clarendon, Texas. It is widely held that the book "Lonesome Dove" by Larry McMurtry is loosely based on the life of Goodnight and his longtime friend and business partner, Oliver Loving.
While other white men were killing bison at will, Goodnight had a bison herd fenced in at Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas Panhandle. He experimented with crossbreeding longhorns and bison, but the experiment failed and the effort was dissolved. At the encouragement of his wife, Molly, the Goodnights saved bison calves, and the ranch became a seed stock for particular herds now roaming some of America's national parks, such as Yellowstone. Goodnight bison DNA can be found in the Pueblo herd, as well, Archuleta said, referring to a gene project conducted by Texas A&M.
After that chance meeting on the Texas plains, a comradeship developed. "Whenever they needed buffalo fat, hides, meat, they went to Goodnight," Archuleta said. In May 1929, Goodnight gave the Pueblo a herd of 18 bison, and he and his wife visited his friends at the Pueblo on a number of occasions.
Since then, the Pueblo has imported other bison from different herds through the assistance of the nonprofit InterTribal Buffalo Council (ITBC), which is headquartered in Rapid City, South Dakota. ITBC was formed in 1990. The mission of the bison cooperative is "restoring buffalo to Indian Country, to preserve our historical, cultural, traditional and spiritual relationship for future generations." Currently, ITBC has a membership of 55 tribes in 19 states with a collective herd of more than 15,000 bison. Taos Pueblo has been a member of ITBC since 1992.
More bison came from the decommissioned Army depot Fort Wingate near Gallup, New Mexico, in the late 1990s. New Mexico Department of Game and Fish was using the 11,000-acre property to graze 60 bison and sponsored a lottery for three hunts of nine mature bulls. The rationale was since 10 to 15 calves are born each year, room must be made for new calves. Public and state pueblo outcry thwarted the plan in 1996.
"The buffalo were dying of old age, we saw some poor-looking buffalo," Archuleta recalled of the conditions at Fort Wingate. "They had little knobs for horns and ground-down teeth. Those animals were divided amongst four tribes and helped diversify gene pools."
In 1998, the tribe received 12 more bison from Badlands National Park. The herd number today stands at about 130 living on a 500-acre pasture near the Pueblo. A veterinarian oversees the health maintenance of the herd. People at the Pueblo grow feed to supplement food during the winter months that they call "buffalo hay" (a mix of alfalfa and grass). Each year, Taos Pueblo harvests a certain number of bison for traditional and tribal consumption.
The herd will be moving into new digs in a few years, informed Archuleta. In 2001, the Taos Pueblo Tribal Council passed a resolution setting aside Track A, a 16,000-acre stretch from about the Río Grande Gorge Bridge to near Pilar. Within that stretch, 5,000 acres will be used for bison pasture. It is undergoing the eradication of sagebrush to allow natural grasses to grow, water development and fencing. The plan is to move the herd into the new pasture in 2020. Some of the "big, woolly creatures," as Archuleta likes to call them, will be kept in the current pasture for traditional purposes.