The American Indians have considered the bison a sacred animal for centuries and the bison has continued to support the tribes in the modern era, even with modest numbers. The Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes in Oklahoma are now working to better market the animal most commonly associated with them and open a bison processing facility near El Reno, Oklahoma.
“We have a bison herd and we’ve been raising them to sustain ourselves,” said Nathan Hart, business director for the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. “We’ve looked into the commercial markets and expanding with a private label bison product. In the bison industry, you really have a limited number of animals around the country. A lot of people are making efforts to expand their herds.”
As far as agricultural interests, Hart says the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes have a small cattle herd of about 150 head and their bison herd consists of about 450 head. All together their agricultural program manages 9,800 acres of land, and much of it is soon to undergo a transformation.
“We did have some row crops, but we are in the process of converting everything back to focus primarily on bison in the next three to five years,” Hart said. “A lot of what we’re doing is going back and taking old cropland with wheat-soybean rotations and putting that back into native grasses.”
Hart says the reason the tribe has chosen to change their agricultural program is they believe bison to be a much more economically sound investment for the tribe’s future.
“The demand and prices always fluctuate but right now bison is worth double the price of beef on a per-pound basis,” Hart said.
In the bison business
Hart says the demand for bison has grown to the point the tribe thought it would be best to vertically integrate and start processing its own bison meat. The facility will be designed to handle 3,000 head a year.
“Right now, based on the marketing efforts we’ve done, we need to process about 600 head of bison a year and the excess capacity of the plant we will open up for other cattle and bison producers in the area outside the tribe,” Hart added.
Hart says the inside of the facility will be pretty much identical to any cattle slaughtering plant, but the outside handling pens are much stronger to accommodate the powerful bison. The plant will start being built in the fourth quarter of this year.
However, the Cheyenne and Arapaho are not the first tribes to open their own bison plant. Hart says the Quapaw Nation opened a facility in northeastern Oklahoma a year ago, and it has served as a premier example of what the Cheyenne and Arapaho hope to build.
“We’re not going to start by processing to full capacity, but we anticipate 15 employees will be associated with the plant when it opens. As it grows there will be an opportunity to employ more people.”
The American Indian Cultural Center and Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, is currently under development, and their soon-to-be open eatery is expected to serve Native American-grown bison.
“The cultural center has expressed a desire to supply their restaurant with foods coming from some of the tribes throughout the country,” Hart said. “Since we are one of a handful of tribal bison producers, they are very interested in us supplying meat to their facility.”
Just like the American Indian Cultural Center plans to keep the history of the American Indians alive and on display, the Native American tribes plan to carry on the same relationship they have had with the bison all these years. Bison once dotted the plains and prairies, supplying the American Indian with food, clothing and supplies and now their significance continues to revive and maintain the tribes in new and evolving ways.
“Culturally, bison are very significant to the American Indian tribes, and particularly the Cheyenne and Arapaho, and from an economic standpoint we feel the bison can help to sustain our cash-flow and help us expand to other areas as well.”
Lacey Newlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.