09/26/2014 05:43 EDT | Updated 11/26/2014 05:59 EST

Historic Intertribal Treaty Works To Restore Bison In Western Canada, U.S.

Eastcott Momatiuk via Getty Images

Blackfeet youth donned buffalo robes Tuesday as part of a re-enactment of a buffalo jump as part of a ceremony to mark the signing of an intertribal treaty to bring North America's largest land mammal back to tribal lands in the Northern Great Plains of Canada and the U.S.

Representatives of 11 U.S. Tribes and Canadian First Nations, including the Siksika (Blackfoot), Piikani (Peigan) and Tsuu T'ina Nation (Sarcee) of Alberta, met in Blackfeet territory in Browning, Montana Tuesday (Sept. 23) to sign the Northern Tribes Buffalo Treaty, the first major intertribal treaty signed in 150 years.

As a whole, these 11 Tribes and First Nations control some 2.5 million hectares of prairie and grasslands and the Northern Tribes Buffalo Treaty calls to participate in a larger continent-wide initiative to restore bison to their native home and in the process, restore a people and the land.

Leroy Little Bear, a member of the Blood Tribe (Kainai) and professor emeritus at the University of Lethbridge and a driving force behind this treaty stated in a media release that "having humans fit themselves into the ecological balance (is) fundamental to the life-ways of Indian peoples. But the buffalo is a major player in this ecological scenario. The near extinction of the buffalo left a major gap. The treaty on buffalo restoration aims to begin to fill that gap and once again partner with the buffalo to bring about cultural and ecological balance."

Plains bison once roamed the Great Plains from Canada, through the U.S. and down into Mexico, sustaining Aboriginal groups of the plains. These people would become tied in every way to the bison, including spiritually.

Bison, which numbered in the tens of millions at the peak of the continental population, were decimated in the 1800s and by the early 1900s, only 1,100 animals had survived the slaughter.

The decimation of the bison, however, inspired the North America's first great conservation movement, according to Keith Aune of the U.S.-based Wildlife Conservation Society bison co-ordinator.

"It is the one species that inspired the conservation movement," Aune said. "It was the demise of buffalo that brought attention to the fact that we needed to save the last of wildlife and wild places. The patriarchs of conservation began to do that at the turn of the 1900s and took that upon themselves in what we call the first recovery of bison."

While this recovery succeeded in saving bison, it didn't connect bison to people or restore wild bison to wild landscapes. The vast majority of bison alive today are kept as livestock or in paddocks. Only about 1,200 to 1,500 mature plains bison in Canada can truly be considered as wild animals.

The Northern Plains Buffalo Treaty, meanwhile, helps move the goal of restoring bison to its historical range a step along through the shared commitment of putting wild, free-roaming bison onto tribal lands in Canada and the U.S.

"The tribes took the initiative to use the ancient practice of treaty to establish a commitment to one another, establish and alliance to help each other in order to achieve their missions and dreams for the return of bison," said Aune. "A lot of this is coming at the same time that they are renewing their ancient teachings and working to restore their languages and their ways in a modern context."

That, Aune said, can be seen in the Blackfeet youth participating in the buffalo jump re-enactment - modern youth learning about their ancestors, their heritage and their connection to bison.

". . . ancient teachings the tribes have been taught years ago but have been lost but is coming back," Aune said, "that we can learn even some social skills from animals, how to treat your young, how to treat each other, all those are parts of these big lessons that come from having buffalo on the land as they should be not as some kind of livestock."