Traditions live on in Buffalo Harvest.

Photograph Jeremy Wade Shockley/The Southern Ute Drum

By Jeremy Wade Shockley

The Southern Ute Drum

A young bison was blessed and harvested under the traditional guidance of the Fort Lewis Buffalo Council on Saturday, March 17, as part of an annual three-day ceremony.

The spirit of the harvest is to promote food sovereignty and education under the guidance of the Buffalo Council and participating tribal elders.

“It really strengthens us as students,” said Amoretta Pringle, president of the Buffalo Council.

The three-day ceremony included a sweat lodge, prayer, bison harvest, and distribution of medicine, finishing in Durango on Sunday with a presentation by longtime Native American activist Russell Means, who voiced the importance of truth and sovereignty to his audience.

This year’s ceremony coincides with the 100th year anniversary of Fort Lewis College, according to organizers.

In recent years, the Buffalo Harvest has taken place at the site of the historic Fort Lewis Indian School near Hesperus, Colo. This year, the event moved to a neighboring ranch house owned and operated by Bill and Virginia Crangle. The Crangles have made Hesperus their home since 1974, and have hosted the Buffalo Council on numerous occasions, giving them a place to perform the ceremonies.

Manuelito “Chief” Garbiso is one of the more recent members to the council and a Fort Lewis alumnus.

“Basically everything goes back to the community,” he said, explaining that the meat will be parceled out to families who qualify, and whatever remains will be used for fundraising events, cooking the bison meat to benefit the community.

The young bison was trucked in from Oklahoma. Raised on a ranch, he was culled from a herd numbering in the hundreds. Michael Mithlo, owner of the company Mighty Good Bison, has delivered a buffalo to the council for the traditional harvest on numerous occasions.

Mithlo, a pragmatic and knowledgeable man with a clear understanding of the butchering process, is of the Comanche and Chiricahue Apache nations. He said it’s good to keep a few bulls in together and let them fight, because it helps build testosterone. He also noted that thick meat on the ribs is a sign of a healthy animal with strong genes.

Nathan Strong Elk was one of a handful of Southern Utes who attended the annual harvest, offering a blessing over the animal once it arrived. Strong Elk emphasized the importance of calming the animal to prepare it for harvest after such a long journey.

The sound of drums could be heard around the early morning campfires, mingling with the smell of burning cedar in the air and the singing of the young participants who would soon harvest the buffalo.

A pair of gunshots broke the still morning silence. Members of the Buffalo Council and their helpers began to cut and clean the great bison, heaving his mass onto tarps.

While the men used knives and tools to section the meat, women worked in teams to separate the vital organs and entrails, each with its own place and purpose, its own destination. Practical efficiency was evident in the collaborative process.

Neighboring dogs became less shy, stealing away with the occasional discard. The winter sun began to warm the ground as expert hands worked in traditional ways.

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