Given American foodies’ obsession with “superfoods,” it seems like the right time to share the secret of Blackfeet success: bison.
Bison are the powerhouses of the Northwestern Plains, providing the Pikuni with 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. (As a child, I had a stuffed bison rather than a teddy bear.)
Every tribe within hunting distance of the Great Plains relied heavily on bison. However bison formed the base of the Blackfeet food pyramid. Prior to colonization, 90 percent of Pikuni calories came from this mammal. The average Blackfeet man consumed 2.5 pounds of bison jerky per day (that’s 7.5 pounds of fresh meat). While supplemented by fruit, roots, greens and other wild game in season, bison provided supercharged nutrition all year-round.
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. Bison 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?)
Bison benefit both human health and the health of the land itself. 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 tens of thousands of years, 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. If left undisturbed, this excess plant matter chokes the soil and prevents healthy growth. Grazing bison remove the choking cover and creating a healthier ecosystem.
Today’s bison still graze in herds, moving across the land and only briefly stopping by watering holes, minimizing the damaging impact of hooves near ponds and streams. Because bison are technically undomesticated, these instincts have not been bred out of them. Unfortunately, domestic livestock that were transplanted from Europe do not share this trait and 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.
An estimated 30 million bison once roamed North America. Unfortunately for bison, the fact they were vital food for indigenous people made them a target. In the words of Army Lieutenant Colonel Richard Irving Dodge, “Every buffalo dead is another Indian gone.” Tens of millions of bison were reduced to just 1,000 by 1889.
Through systematic recovery efforts, these animals are making a rebound, Today, about500,000 bison live across the continent, although they are essentially kept in captivity and extinct in the wild. (The major exception are the wild herds of Yellowstone National Park).
While bison is catching on as one of the healthiest, most sustainable meats you can buy, America has a long way to go to revitalize this food source. Demand leads to innovation, especially in the world of culinary arts. Buying grass-fed bison sends a message to the agricultural sector.
Though Blackfeet have been forcibly torn from our traditional chow, we (and many other tribes) are working to expand buffalo herds and processing facilities. We are revitalizing our foodways from bison ribs on the grill to Tanka bars in the backpack. Some have even gone so far as attempting to decolonize the Indian Taco by using bison instead of ground beef, 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.
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).