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Buffalo bounty bolsters young Wind River food pantry system

Locally harvested traditional meats and expanding storage and distribution resources combine to strengthen food sovereignty for reservation residents.

This is the Northern Arapaho herd where Rahel Manna received her donated buffalo in 2023. (Patti Harris)

by Taylar Dawn Stagner, WyoFile

Rahel Mehari Manna drew a deep breath of crisp air and set her eyes on the buffalo that would soon feed hundreds of her neighbors on the Wind River Reservation. 

Community members gathered around her as a marksman stood apart, taking aim for a quick, clean, humane kill. 

The shot that rang out a moment later marked both the end of one bull and the next small step in a generations-long journey toward strengthening tribal food sovereignty — a task involving the reintroduction of buffalo to Wind River, a renewed emphasis on traditional foods, recent investments in storage and an interrogation of a colonial past. 

After the animal fell, Manna looked on as a forklift raised the carcass, and the community began to ready the buffalo for processing.

“It was a blessing,” Manna said. “Honestly, just about everything I do every day is a prayer, and trying to stay humble and remember that most things that get you excited that are positive are a blessing.”

For Manna, who is Eritrean-American from the Tigrayan tribe, this blessing started in early December when the Northern Arapaho Business Council and Intertribal Buffalo Council announced she had won a raffle for a whole buffalo from the Northern Arapaho Tribe’s herd. Following the harvest, she paid $900 to have the whole buffalo professionally processed, then began distributing the roughly 500 pounds of lean, free-range, grass-fed meat to the community.

“I’m trying to repay the generosity I’ve been shown,” she said. “Anybody who harvests the buffalo on the rez, they should give a majority of the buffalo to the community.”

Sharing the bounty

Getting a buffalo to the people is easier said than done, given the community’s current lack of food distribution infrastructure. Without a single brick-and-mortar community-run pantry on the Wind River Reservation, there’s no obvious or easy place to even store such a bounty. And while many reservation households rely on these monthly food distributions for fruits, veggies and healthy proteins, resources are limited and access remains difficult. 

When Manna had buffalo meat to share, Jackie White, her adopted mother, was already working to improve food distribution. They both are intimately tied to their community and help build supports like access to food.

“Food sovereignty is a crucial means for all Indigenous nations to reclaim — our culture, history, health, and political sovereignty,” MELVIN ARTHUR

On a bright winter day in January at the Fort Washakie pow wow grounds, White smiled as she assembled food boxes for a line of people in their cars to stay protected from the biting cold. White, who is Northern Arapaho, is the Tribal Relations Specialist for Wyoming Food Bank, and since 2020 she has been spearheading food distribution in the Wind River area. She is excited about building more local, internal food sovereignty support, as opposed to federal government programs and state initiatives. 

“We are looking at food pantries,” White said. “We have to have the building infrastructure, and then we’re gonna have to raise the money. There’s a whole lot of different things that are involved in bringing the food pantries together.”

Wind River Cares, the Northern Arapaho Tribe’s community healthcare provider, is donating a building in the town of Arapahoe, according to White. Eastern Shoshone Tribal Health is also in talks with White about a Fort Washakie location, she said. It’s all in the beginning stages. 

The idea of reservation-based facilities that can store meats, fruits and veggies for anyone to access is exciting, White said. They could even use such locations much like grocery stores. She hopes this will combat the high levels of diabetes and lower life expectancies that Indigenous people on the Wind River Reservation face compared to their white counterparts. 

White helped put together a food survey in 2021, with Wyoming Food Bank’s Culturally Responsive Food Initiative, to ask tribal members on the Wind River Reservation what culturally preferred food they would like to have access to during the monthly food distributions. The answers were overwhelmingly in favor of foods like buffalo, elk, chokecherries and corn. 

In the winter of 2018 the Eastern Shoshone herd huddled together during a snowstorm. (Patti Harris)

“As Indigenous people that nourishes our heart, mind, body and spirit,” she said.

White is critical of food distribution models that require people to jump through lots of hoops but offer limited options. She hopes to build something better. 

“Now, it’s not like the old school,” White said. “We are able to do things the way we want to do them.”

Manna was not the only one to recently donate local proteins for food distribution. Northern Arapaho tribal member Nate Friday and his daughter Tasha and brother Starr donated five elk, then the Shoshone and Arapaho Game and Fish donated five elk as well. Between the elk and the buffalo thousands of pounds of locally sourced protein have been made available to the community. 

A day after the Wyoming Food Bank’s January food distribution, a group of about 25 stakeholders met to discuss the feasibility of creating a local pantry system. Rachel Bailey, director of the Wyoming Food Bank, said that there was interest in putting together an advisory council that could potentially develop into a governing board. 

“This needs to be community-led and community-run,” Bailey said. “Building these food pantries on the Wind River Reservation is a very important step in being able to address some of the challenges of food insecurity on the Wind River Reservation, but it will not solve the challenges of food insecurity.”

Small towns, long roads, few options

Bailey said around 11% of people in Wyoming are food insecure, citing USDA census information. Many who live on the Wind River drive into nearby towns like Riverton or Lander for groceries, which can be difficult in the winter months. And while these towns have food banks, lack of reliable transportation, and high grocery prices, are big issues for most utilizing the monthly food distribution. 

To bridge the gap, Wyoming Food Bank currently stages distributions each month in Arapahoe and Fort Washakie. There are usually 300 boxes available at each site. Larger households —  some are home to 10 or 15 people —  often receive more than one box to feed everyone. 

“Across the state, the only access to food might be a convenience store. People travel really long distances to source food. And so, if you do not have the access to transportation or time to go and do that, then that is a barrier,” Bailey said. The Wyoming Food Bank, she added, is purely in a supporting role in getting these pantries off the ground. 

Recovering from colonization

The Wind River Reservation’s history of colonization has contributed to the lack of supportive food networks. In his 2019 paper “Restorying Northern Arapaho Food Sovereignty,” Northern Arapaho researcher Melvin Arthur outlined the importance of reclaiming these foodways in the face of colonial eradication. 

“Food sovereignty is a crucial means for all Indigenous nations to reclaim — our culture, history, health, and political sovereignty,” Arthur writes. It’s important for solutions to come from a historical and community-based understanding of tribes’ individual food history, he said, as well as knowing how events like genocide, residential schools and trauma contribute to food systems. “Our struggles and our suffering multiplied as our people were killed — by starvation, disease, despair, and direct attacks — and by having our land, food ways and children stripped away.” 

The United States Department of Food Distribution program and food rations during the early 1900s contributed to the alienation of local food systems on the Wind River Reservation, Arthur also found.

“This dietary change hit us with a growing supply of the sugar, fat, and salt found in canned pork, canned chicken, canned beef, butter, corn syrup, and cheese,” Arthur wrote. “This program also led to a lack of fresh fruits and vegetables.”

Manna is very familiar with this colonial history and how it impacts food chains today. She not only donated buffalo meat to the monthly Food Bank of Wyoming distribution but drove all around the reservation with her gifts. She donated a large amount to the Eastern Shoshone housing authority, White Buffalo Recovery Center, and to mentors and elders both Arapaho and Shoshone. 

As a member of the international Indigenous community living on the Wind River Reservation, Manna said she wants to give back to the place that has welcomed her so warmly. 

“I was really happy to feel that generosity from both tribal communities,” Manna said. “It’s a beautiful feeling of having a community so far away from home.” She was homeless for a time and relied on food pantries and shelters, she said. “People fall on hard times. It’s important to have a place in the community to protect the vulnerable.”

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.