The significant relationship between the McDougall Stoney Mission, the Stoney People and the bison was recently explored and celebrated at the McDougall Stoney Mission site.

Before the discussions began, it was natural for Marie-Eve Marchand, of the Bison Belong conservation group, to share food prepared with bison meat to celebrate the deep relationship of the three.

"I decided there was nothing better than sharing the love with the buffalo heart."

"Then I decided to have the three sisters--beans, squash and corn--because that's also the story of what comes out of the ground here. So I mixed lots of love with the buffalo heart with the love of the sisters and decided to build the rest around it."

Sharing food prepared with bison is part of the passion, she explains. As a member of a family that has been in the food/catering industry for four generations, it also comes naturally to her.

"The buffalo needs to nourish you, so you can nourish your intentions for the buffalo," she explains. "So eating buffalo is part of that spiritual connection and that's why it's so important to eat buffalo as we're going to talk about it and remember and dream for the next phase of the bison in this landscape."

"By eating it, the bison becomes part of you and the more you have bison as part of you, the more you can think about it and do good to bring them back."

She has prepared bison dishes throughout her 10 years of working with buffalo and says its deeply rooted in the culture of the Stoney People.

"It's important spiritually. It's in their ceremonies, it's in their sound and bison belong in this landscape."

Marchand had just returned from an eight-day hike in hopes of spotting the wild bison herd with a group of Indigenous women. There were no guarantees, comparing the odds to be as likely as spotting a herd of elk between Banff and Lake Louise.

"But we did. It was an amazing sight. They were on the pass and we had good luck. That was one of those situations where you realize afterwards that we had a lot of luck, intentions and prayers to make it work."

Longtime Dream now a Reality for Locke

The event came on the dawn of the first anniversary of the release of the first wild herd of bison to roam a 1,200 km2 reintroduction zone deep in Banff’s Panther River Valley. They had been absent from the landscape for nearly 150 years and currently number 36 with the hope of more calves in the coming months.

Harvey Locke, founder of the Yellowknife to Yukon Conservation Initiative, has long studied and advocated for the reintroduction of wild bison in the park. Last week, he, too, had the opportunity to hike the Panther River Valley with Marchand in search of the herd, fulfilling a longtime dream of seeing a wild herd in the park.  

While there are over 200,000 bison in captivity for meat, only a half dozen wild Plains herds exist in North America, he explains. Even then, most are kept in fenced areas. 

"We saved them from extinction and then have them in fences but we don't have them in the wild in very many places," explains Locke. "They belong in the wild. They drive the structure of the system in the wild and they need to be back in the landscape in the same way we have grizzly bears, and wolves and elks and those sorts of animals."

The Plains bison remains an endangered species and some view them as 'ecologically dead' as a species except in a few national parks and wildlife areas. 

Locke believes their significant ecological role hasn't been forgotten.

"The magpies remembered they could pluck the fur off the bison's back and line their nests with it, even though the bison hadn't been here for 140 years. It's pretty amazing."

"That's the dream I have in the longer term. As the population in Banff grows we can maybe imagine ourselves living with bison more broadly at least in the Rocky mountain part of the landscape."

He says the bison is deeply connected to the story of this McDougall Stoney Mission. They were the reason Rev. John McDougall selected what became the mission site after being invited here by the Stoney People.

"They came and looked and there was actually a herd of buffalo right here on this site and they said that's a good place to put the mission," says Locke. "It's that deeply connected."

For the indigenous people in the Plains, the bison's significance was even greater.

"The bison was the centre of life, spiritual activity, material culture, food, lodging, bedding, learning. It was an essential part of their character as a people and an essential part of their well-being.

"When we destroyed buffalo we did an awful lot of damage to that. I believe we also did damage to our own souls as the people who came here from elsewhere and I believe putting them back is important to restoring those two relationships."

Participation continues to grow

The celebration organized by the McDougall Stoney Mission Society followed a family fun day held the previous day in conjunction with Calgary Historic Week. 

Society president Brenda McQueen was thrilled with the turnout. More than five times as many people enjoyed this year's Historic Week event despite a brief period of heavy rain and high winds.

Attendance at society events has been increasing steadily since the introduction of regular special events at the church site last season.

The annual fall church service is the next scheduled event and is slated for Sept. 8.