Initiative Overview

The Buffalo Nations Food System Initiative (BNFSI) is Indigenous-led and builds collective, collaborative, and proactive capacity for Indigenous food sovereignty. Drawing on the leadership and guidance from Buffalo Nations of the Northwestern Plains and Northern Rockies and founded on the principles of the Indigenous Research Initiative, BNFSI promotes the priorities of Native Nations through equitable Indigenous-led partnerships in research and education.[1] As a state institution endowed by the land itself, Montana State University significantly supports the development and prosperity of Indigenous food systems in this region as they become reinvigorated by the Native Nations themselves. BNFSI at MSU will credential Indigenous food systems professionals and enhance research using Indigenous knowledge systems as a primary source of understanding and Western Science as a companion way of knowing. Together, both Native and Western Science will drive our collective work and shared understandings moving forward. 

As Buffalo Nations, we situate ourselves in our own sovereignty and in solidarity with the one who has always stood for us, the Buffalo. Our Elders and Knowledge Keepers remind us that it is not the Buffalo who left, it is us who went away. Coming back to our ancient way of gathering as Nations and forging lasting relationships, is to lift the pipe in agreement with one another in the making of treaty. Therefore, we seek to align our work in education and research for vital Indigenous food systems with the spirit and intent of the Buffalo Treaty ( We join with all Buffalo Nations, who have lifted the pipe and are signatories to the Buffalo Treaty to: honor, recognize, and revitalize the time immemorial relationship we have with our older brother, the Buffalo. The Buffalo Treaty is a foundational base to approach the notion of food sovereignty from a Native science perspective. For example, Article VI: Research states that:

Realizing that Learning is a life-long process, We, collectively, agree to perpetuate knowledge gathering and knowledge sharing according to our customs and inherent authorities revolving around BUFFALO that do not violate our traditional ethical standards as a means to expand our knowledge base regarding the environment, wildlife, plant life, water, and the role BUFFALO played in the history, spiritual, economic, and social life of our NATIONS.”

The BNFSI recognizes that Indigenous food systems are inextricably tied to ceremonial beliefs and practices including connections to sacred sites and sacred species that are diverse among Native Nations. Led by an Indigenous Council, the BNFSI is grounded in seven generations thinking including the seven R’s: Respect, Relationships, Reasoning, Reciprocity, Resourcefulness, Resilience, and Reverence. The BNFSI supports strengthening Indigenous identity and food sovereignty through the safe return of Buffalo to the land and back into our lives again.

An Education & Research Institute Designed to Build:


As a state institution endowed by the land itself, Montana State University supports the development and prosperity of Indigenous food systems in this region as they are currently being re-created by the Native nations of the Northwestern Plains and Rockies. MSU is the primary four-year institution of choice for Native students in Montana. The Department of Native American Studies was recently accredited under the World Indigenous Nations Higher Education (WINHEC). MSU has substantial capacity for credentialing Indigenous food systems professionals and conducting Indigenous-led research relative to Indigenous food sovereignty.

Through Indigenous-led partnerships with other Land Grant institutions, the Tribal Colleges Units throughout the biocultural region, BNFSI is grounded in Indigenous knowledge of food systems and the priorities of Native nations. By partnering with tribal colleges and developing integrated programming at MSU, we envision building a strong research and education network in support of the re-vitalization of Buffalo Nations’ food systems.


The Buffalo Nations food system was sustained through a web of relationship including the Land and the People. Moving beyond colonial boundaries (state, provincial, and federal) we are working together again in support of the web of relations.


Indigenous food systems require human capacity from many different fields including agriculture, sustainable food systems, community nutrition, soil science, economics, hydrology, business, dietetics, fisheries management, and other natural resource fields. Buffalo Nations Food System Initiative is building a credentialing pathways forIndigenous food systems professionals working collaboratively with tribal and community colleges to put Indigenous knowledge in the lead while integrating Western ways of knowing. The first credentialing pathway is a graduate certificate in Indigenous Food Systems that can be paired with any undergraduate or graduate degree to give students grounding formation in Indigenous foodways knowledge.


Following an Indigenous ecological model of education, this four-class certificate will follow the annual seasonal round with a course for each season. The certificate will round out any degree pertaining to Indigenous food systems, for example in the fields of Nutrition, Business, Medical Fields, Earth Sciences, Agriculture, Economics, Culinary, and Sustainable Foods. Credentialing will happen in collaboration with partnering MSU colleges and TCUs.

Students will receive instruction from Indigenous knowledge holders, in a land-based model of education, preparing them as professionals equipped with a culturally-based approach to food sovereignty.


Our focus on ancestral foods lies relationship, education and research with the buffalo who stands at the center of our food system, and with the many other-than-human relatives—animal and plant relatives who have sustained us for millennia.


We put the Land, our first teacher, and traditional ecological knowledge, in front as we create programs of land-based education.


The Buffalo Nations Council ‘leads with love’ to draw together buffalo nations to build collective, collaborative, and proactive capacity for Indigenous food sovereignty. Working as relatives of the same food system, we are strengthening the bonds of relatives—alliances and trading relationships—that made our food system the most resilient and sustainable ever in North America.


As Indigenous food systems courses and student cohorts develop, land-based learning will be maximized both on and off campus. Working with Tribal Colleges, Native Nations, and private landowners, opportunities to learn from the Land will be offered in every course and encouraged as a central method of research inquiry. Through field trips, culture camps, and field work, students will have an opportunity to go to our first teacher, Mother Earth. The grounds surrounding the new American Indian Hall--a landscape of edible, ceremonial, and medicinal plants—will serve as a BNFSI outdoor learning laboratory and kitchen. Buffalo Nations also cultivates ancestral foods and seeds on the MSU Horticulture Farm.


The BNFSI hosts and works collaboratively with the non-profit organization, Montana Indigenous Food Sovereignty Initiative. MIFSI is a coalition of Indigenous young adults, supported by Indigenous elder-mentors, working to support and strengthen intertribal food sovereignty efforts. In 2021, this young organization distributed seed bundles to 200 family and community gardens including every Indigenous reservation in the state. To provide additional ancestral seeds for future bundles MIFSI interns and volunteers are stewarding a collection of ancestral varieties of corn, beans, squash, and sunflowers and growing these ancient regional varieties on the Montana State University Horticultural Farm in order to expand ancestral offerings in future seed bundle distributions.

  • SEED CULTIVATION & SAVING: Buffalo Nations, working in collaboration with MIFSI, is cultivating, saving, snd sharing ancestral seeds as we develop an ancestral seed cooperative for the biocultural region of the Northwestern Plains and Northern Rockies.
  • A NETWORK OF NATIVE GARDENERS: Through educational events and social media platforms, MIFSI provides education, technical support, and seed sourcing for and with Indigenous students at MSU and Indigenous gardeners in Montana.

Working in Indigenous-led partnerships with the Native Nations and Colleges of this biocultural region, the Buffalo Nations Food System Initiative is established to:

  • educate and train the coming generations of Indigenous food system professionals
  • create more opportunities for Indigenous food producers and businesses
  • strengthen communities through Indigenous food knowledge and access
  • invest in Indigenous research scholarship towards cultural knowledge recovery of foodways and innovations towards vital 21st century Indigenous food systems
  • heal the Land and the People

BNFSI Council

The Indigenous Council is composed of Indigenous food systems leaders from the Buffalo Nations bio-cultural region of the Northwestern Plains and Northern Rockies. The Council includes: 

Dr. Leroy Littlebear is a member of the Blackfoot Confederacy from the Blood Tribe / Kainai Nation. Dr. Littlebear, a veteran educator and renowned academic, is a model for all Aboriginals striving for success in higher learning. The founder of the Native American Studies Department at the University of Lethbridge – where he served as Chair for 21 years – also went on to become the founding Director of Harvard University’s Native American Program. He’s co-authored three texts – Pathways to Self-Determination: Native Indian Leaders Perspectives on Self-Government, Quest for Justice: Aboriginal Rights in Canada, and Governments in Conflict: Provinces and Indian Nations in Canada – and helped write Justice on Trial, the report of Alberta’s Task Force on the Criminal Justice System and Its Impacts on the Indian and Métis Peoples of Alberta. Little Bear contributed to publications for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in the area of criminal justice issues, did the same for the Assembly of First Nations on constitutional issues and has provided legal advice to numerous Aboriginal organizations on land claims, treaties and hunting and fishing rights. He is now recognized as one of the continent’s leaders in the advancement and acceptance of North American Indian philosophy. 

Beyond Canada’s borders, Leroy played a central role in the first international Indigenous treaty in more than 150 years. The Buffalo: A Treaty Cooperation, Renewal and Restoration of 2014 formalized a commitment to restore the buffalo and to maintain associated Indigenous cultural traditions. One of Leroy’s most significant and enduring legacies is his work with the United Nations, where he helped to establish a working group on Indigenous populations. It was this working group that originated the concept and initial draft of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This declaration has since been ratified by 144 member states of the UN.

Ms. Paulette Fox, Natowaawawahkaki - Holy Walking Woman is a member of the Blackfoot Confederacy from the Blood Tribe / Kainai Nation in southern Alberta. As an Indigenous knowledge and wisdom keeper, environmental scientist and entrepreneur, Paulette brings a unique perspective and is a recognized leader in her field as an Indigenous environmental practitioner. Her work is well sought out by governments, organizations, and institutions that seek to enhance their outcomes and transform their relationships with Indigenous Peoples through reconciliation and rights-based approaches. She co-founded the transboundary tribal-led bison conservation and cultural Iinnii Initiative, the Buffalo Treaty, and specializes in Biocultural Diversity systems design. Currently, she advises on Indigenous-led research and Conservation through Reconciliation (CRP) at the University of Guelph, ON, while pursuing doctoral studies in environment and geomatics. Her research looks at large landscape cumulative effects to Blackfoot biocultural diversity using WebGIS, site analysis and computer simulations. The outcomes of her research will support Indigenous-led conservation and governance as well as enhance a continental biocultural strategy for bison reintroduction through partnerships with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Paulette has served on numerous conservation and watershed management boards and committees along with national advisory and expert panels. Currently, she is vice-Chair of the Canadian Mountain Network, a National Centre of Excellence based out of the University of Alberta, where she serves on the Indigenous Circle of Advisors, Governance and Research Management Committees. Ms. Fox is also a member of the Indigenous advisory group for the Great Sand Hills Bison Reintroduction with the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) in Saskatchewan where she recently advised on the plan for Old Man on His Back Bison Restoration. Paulette formerly coached figure skating in British Columbia as well as power skating and hockey at home on the Blood Reserve in Alberta; she now enjoys skating and spending time with her three children: Austin, Jaklyn and Dallis. 

Shelly Fyant is a member of the Bitteroot-Salish. She is the former Chairwoman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT). In her role as leader of these tribes, she is managing the return of the National Bison Range to CSKT and the tribes’ recent 1.9-billion-dollar water compact settlement. Ms. Fyant’s path to her current tribal leadership position included the work she did for her community in food sovereignty as the founder of the Healing the Jocko Valley Food Sovereignty Project. 

Major Robinson, Screaming Hawk, is a member of the Tsetsehesestehase Sotaahe/ Northern Cheyenne Nation. Major was born and raised on the Northern Cheyenne reservation and earned his degree in Architecture at the University of New Mexico.  He is the owner and principal of Redstone Project Development, an architectural planning and design business, in Helena Montana, working with Tribes and Indian communities, helping them develop their projects, leadership capacity, businesses and organizations. Major’s recent projects include the development of American Indian Hall at MSU. He is currently working on the new museum addition to the Montana Historical Society, the Montana Heritage Center, in Helena and developing a new American Indian exhibition for the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman. For a number of years Major had the distinct honor of working for the Governor of Montana in his Office of Indian Affairs, helping Governor Schweitzer build strong government-to-government relationships between the State of Montana and the Tribes of Montana.  With other state agency leaders, he helped to create the Governor’s American Indian Nations council and oversaw the State Tribal Economic Development Commission.   Major believes in giving back to his community and has volunteered his time in various positions. He served on the Governor’s Board of Regents where he worked with fellow board members to oversee the higher education system of Montana.  While on the Board of Regents Major worked to improved collaboration with the 7 Tribal Colleges in Montana to provide interdependent education resources between Tribal Colleges and Montana’s University system.  Major and his wife, Michelle, also own Sage & Oats Trading Post, an intercultural gift shop in Helena Montana, where they live with their two kids, Jorian and Kyra. 

Helen Augare Carlson Mamiatsikimiiaki-Magpie Woman is an enrolled member of the Ampsakapii Pikanii Blackfeet Tribe. She was born and raised on the Blackfeet Nation in Northern Montana. She is the wife of Sheldon Carlson (Mistakiiootahs – Mountain Horse) and mother of two daughters and a son. Her family are tied to the Two Medicine River Valley. She attended the Browning Public Schools, Blackfeet Community College, and Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana. She completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Montana in Business Administration with emphasis in Management and Information Systems. Helen began her career in STEM education reform as the director of the Rural Systemic Initiative project at Blackfeet Community College in 2000. As a result of her leadership in education reform through the development of the NSF-funded Blackfeet Community College Rural Systemic Initiative (BCC-RSI) and Native Science Field Centers, she is demonstrating outstanding mentoring that significantly increases the participation of Native American youth K-12, tribal college students, and graduate educators in STEM throughout the Northern Rockies and Plains. Helen is currently the Title III Director in the Institutional Development Department at Blackfeet Community College. Together with her husband they hold the Ksisktahkii Mopistan Beaver Bundle and the Ponoka Iikokan (Elk Painted Lodge). She is also a student of the Niistipowahsinni language and a devoted advocate of IINNII relatives. 

Jason Baldes is a member of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe from the Wind River Indian Reservation (WRIR) in Wyoming. He received his undergraduate and graduate degrees in Land Resource & Environmental Sciences from Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana. Interest in Indigenous cultural revitalization afforded Baldes opportunities to work in New Zealand, Russia, and Denmark. Work in his own community has been focused on the reintroduction of Buffalo to the WRIR and is currently the Buffalo Representative and herd manager for the Eastern Shoshone Tribe. He is currently the Tribal Buffalo Program Manager for the Tribal Partnerships Program of the National Wildlife Federation working with numerous Tribes seeking to restore Buffalo to Tribal lands. With his father and others, we worked diligently to bring buffalo back to the Eastern Shoshone Tribe as well as the Northern Arapaho Tribe that share the WRIR. He is the former Executive Director of the Wind River Native Advocacy Center, a non-profit organization with a mission of empowering Native Americans in Wyoming to have a stronger voice through community organizing, education, research, legal advocacy, and leadership development. Mr. Baldes serves as Secretary on the Board of Directors for the Inter-Tribal Buffalo Council, the Board of Trustees of the Conservation Lands Foundation and the Environmental Commission of the Congress of Nations and States. He is also an instructor at Central Wyoming College and the Wind River Tribal College.

Indigenous Intelligence

"Eurocentric intelligence is restricted to rational, linear, competitive, and hierarchical thinking. Indigenous intelligence encompasses the body, mind, heart, and experience in total responsiveness and total relationship to the whole environment, which includes the seven generations past and future. Implementation of major changes to indigenous communities requires being well educated in the Indigenous way of being."

- Jim Dumont Onaubinisay (Walks Above the Ground), Ojibwa-Anishinaabe

Our Ways of Knowing

Seven generations thinking guides the work of the BNFSI with a shared set of core values including Respect, Relationships, Reasoning, Reciprocity, Resourcefulness, Resiliency, and Reverence.

The first of the seven grandfather teachings, held in common by many Buffalo Nations, is respect. The teaching of respect is symbolized by the Buffalo.For us, as for the buffalo, to respect is to give. The Buffalo who has stood for us for millennia teaches Respect. By giving his life, the Buffalo shares every part of its being--shows respect. In this way the Buffalo practices conservation seeking to perpetuate all life. We also respect the interrelationships between us and the four-leggeds, the winged ones, those that swim, and the relatives that live above and below the ground. We commit to healing the kinship web through working with our relatives with respect, avoiding judgement, and supporting diversity in Native and mainstream cultures. 

We are committed to restoring a large relational network around our Indigenous food systems that aligns with our Indigenous relationships of old which favored diplomacy and alliances, as well as cooperative, respectful, and reciprocal encouragement of the well-being of all our relatives. 

To this end, we envision nurturing strong bonds between this program and Tribal and First Nations Colleges—relationships which will build a foundation of support for Indigenous students who are moving from one institution to another and encourage Native-led food system research within our communities contributing to cultural knowledge recovery and the priorities of Native Nations. 

Further, we commit ourselves to ‘leading with love’ in an effort to heal divisions that have come between Native Nations through the course of colonial disruption. We reject lateral violence amongst and within our communities. We stand for good relations with all peoples and the Earth who sustains us.

Our reasoning leads us to our understanding of the world we live in and flows from it. Reasoning includes how we come to know and what we know. We call our way of reasoning Indigenous knowledge. Knowledge is a methodology. A methodology is a validation process. It speaks to how we validate sensory intake so that a person can claim, “I know.” Knowing is represented in the Indigenous context as multiple and diverse processes and includes other ways of knowing, i.e., dreams, visions, insights and teachings that validate one’s sensory intake. In its essence, Indigenous knowledge flows from a relationship between people and place, and in an understanding that is represented by the statement, “We are the Land,” where Land represents all of the web of life inclusive of elements and beings including water, wind, soil, fire, sky, animals, plants, water, and people. In the Indigenous world, knowledge is about these relationships, therefore our education and research are land-based, or always in relationship with the breadth of elements in the web of life and committed to their well-being. 

We recognize that all that we receive is gift and practice reciprocal exchange amongst our relatives in the processes of education and research, as we do in our way of life. Transference of knowledge happens only when the individual presents with respect and reciprocity and commits to relationship and the burden of knowledge. Yet, once knowledge is transferred it is not to remain static, but always in motion for the sake of renewal and community well-being (Little Bear, 2018). Reciprocity is not transactional but occurs in a circular pattern that recognizes the patterns of being and seasons and honors the well-being of all our relations. We are the People of the Medicine Wheel Country who recognize growth happening in four spheres--mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional elements--the four seasons, and the four stages of life. As we steward knowledge transference, we commit to honoring the cultural protocols and interests of each community our students come from and work with.

Our ancestors and teachers have long reminded us that, “We are the land.” Recognizing our responsibility for the health of the land and the people, we re-Indigenize ourselves, our land and water use, and education. As we see all animals, plants, and elements as our relatives, we acknowledge these relatives as life sources and reject the dominant narrative of ‘natural resources’. To this end, we are committed to Indigenizing our credentialing of Indigenous food system professionals preparing Native students to continue our way of life in which food is the end product of our land practices and ways of being. We are committed to encouraging Indigenous youth from a very young age to consider where their gifts align with this work and the fields of Earth Sciences and Food Systems carrying forward care for Mother Earth and the production of food in modern Indigenous food systems in the 21st century and beyond. 

We are committed to cultural resurgence and mutual well-being. Though our communities have faced great hardship within the context of colonization, we stand in our own cultural values and lend our strength to one another and mainstream culture. This translates to a philosophy of investing in our ways of knowing, our own lands and peoples first, without leaving anyone behind. While we place an emphasis on the importance of Indigenous knowledge leading this Initiative, we look to integrate Western ways of knowing as well. As we work to recover and re-integrate Indigenous foodways and agricultural knowledge including relationship with buffalo, we encourage engagement of Indigenous cultural values with others’ agricultural methods.  

With respect for the ancestors who carried our knowledges forward, the land, and buffalo, we hold integrity for Indigenous culture and work to protect the pathway of the new life that is coming. We stand strong so that our students and their students may stand strong in their Indigenous identities. 

As we conduct education and research in support of vital Indigenous food systems, we acknowledge that the seeds of well-being are found in each one’s culture. With recognition of the strength in diversity, we work collectively to build mutual capacity for caring for our own and the web of relationship. Centering food system education and research in the values of our communities, we are focused on the ones who are coming who will carry Indigenous knowledge and well-being into the future. 

Food Sovereignty

Prior to Euro-American colonization of what we call Turtle Island (North America,) the Native Nations of the Northwestern Plains and Rockies shared a common food system—the buffalo culture seasonal round. The food system has often been misunderstood and over simplified through use of the term“hunter-gather,” and portrayed as a hand-to-mouth existence. More accurately, the buffalo culture food system was a highly complex way of life built upon Indigenous knowledge of a vast landscape, including an intimate understanding of animals, plants, season, and climate, passed down for millennia and retained as a matter of life and death. The annual seasonal round a series of movements on the land to hunt, fish, trade, harvest, and cultivate Indigenous foods. It was also critically embedded in our way of life which taught reciprocity, responsibility, and relationship—amongst other values which guided our sustainable relationship with the Land.

For more than 13,000 years, buffalo were the center of our way life. Grandfather Buffalo was the center of our food system and our kinship network of exchange (our economy), until 1883 when colonial forces nearly exterminated the buffalo. The buffalo culture lifeway was the longest sustained food system on North America. Grandfather Buffalo, at its center, was our sovereignty.

Restoration of food sovereignty is a top priority of Native Nations everywhere, and urgently so in this Changing Earth Time, in which the human-created imbalance in the web of life is impacting the well-being of all. It is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate foodproduced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and to define their own food and agriculture systems. (Declaration of Nyeleni, 2007) More than one hundred Native Nations have come home to the buffalo by restoring herds to their homelands. This is important not only towards re-establishing food sovereignty but as a matter of cultural continuity, in that buffalo are a relative vital to Indigenous identity, spiritual life, and the well-being of our homelands. Food is just the end product of the structure that is our way of life.

Colonization has impoverished the web of life to which Native people belong. The extractive colonial economy has exhausted the lands, drawn out life sources or “natural resources” for the sake of colonial economic development. This has led to ongoing issues of justice on the land and within the food system. Access to healthy and culturally appropriate foods in Indigenous communities are limited and in many communities altogether unavailable. Further, colonization of the Indigenous food system and distribution of replacement or commodity foods as well as the foods of the dominant culture, have negatively impacted Indigenous health and contributed to disproportionate rates of inflammatory disease.

Indigenous food sovereignty is an holistic project concerned with tending the well-being of the Land and the People

Jill Falcon Ramaker, PhD
Buffalo Nations Food System Initiative
Office: (406) 994-6369
E-mail: [email protected]