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SAWYER, Minn. — A dozen bison have easily settled into life on the Native Wise farm, a return of the shaggy, broad-backed animals to this area on the Fond du Lac Reservation where they haven't lived since the end of the 1800s.

The bison stand together in clusters and jostle for alfalfa snacks. Rosie, among the smaller animals, is quick to greet visitors at the green gate of the enclosure, and they all step aside when Boss Babe wants a turn at the trough. They communicate quietly among themselves when no one is listening.

"When I sneak up there, they're making noises — but they don't do it when humans are around," said David Wise, who owns the farm with his wife, Patra. "But they are talking to each other."

Native Wise, a family ranch about 30 miles southwest of Duluth, acquired the young bison this past fall with assistance from a South Dakota nonprofit working to return the animals to Native land prompted by the spiritual and cultural importance of the animals. Tanka Fund helped the family build a fenced-in space, delivered the animals and will continue to check in and offer support.

It's part of a collaboration with The Nature Conservancy, which donated the animals that were raised on a preserve in Nebraska where they are used for grasslands management.

The return of bison is part is part of a broader conservation movement — and sustainability within smaller communities. Wise is imagining that these bison will someday feed his neighbors.

The wild animals, more agile than their shape suggests, quickly adapted to this new landscape in northeast Minnesota. They found their manmade water supply, established a social hierarchy, and have weathered rain, ice and snow — seemingly opting for wet fur over dry stalls.

"They actually seem happier in the cold," Patra Wise said.

Welcome home

The Wise family hosted a celebration on their farm a few miles off Minnesota Highway 210 on a chilly day in November — soon after the herd was delivered. Snow patches dotted the dirt near a barn. The animals, collected within a fenced-in enclosure, pushed long faces into haystacks, pieces left clinging to tufts of beard. The audience was a mix of representatives from The Nature Conservancy and Tanka Fund, alongside family and friends.

There was a prayer in Ojibwe and the steady beat from a drum. The smells of burning sage and soup mixed as big snowflakes fell.

Wise has consulted historical maps and believes that long ago both woodland and plains bison intersected in this area. Back then, the animals offered food, shelter and tools. Then they were wiped out, nearly pushed to extinction, by colonization. The National Park Service reports that where there had once been millions of bison in North America, numbers dropped into the thousands between 1820 and 1880.

"This is a creature that belongs here," Wise said to the small crowd. "And we're going to bring it back."

'Bring back my namesake'

Patra Wise pointed out a snow-covered wooden swing that faces the bison's corral. This is where she sits on warmer days and considers the grand animals they are hosting. The bison continue to reveal their nature — whether it's their methodical movements, the response to distant wolves howling or the way they prefer to be outdoors regardless of the weather.

It was a series of linked events that led to the delivery of bison. David Wise, in researching his family tree, found that he was a sixth-generation descendent of Chief Buffalo.

Buffalo was an Ojibwe leader from the 1800s who represented the Lake Superior Chippewa in treaty negotiations with the U.S. government and thwarted relocation attempts and secured land in this area for Native Americans. Wise recalled a vivid dream in which his relative came to him and said: "Bring back my namesake."

"I thought about that a lot — I didn't quite know what he meant," Wise said. "Then I started thinking about his name: Chief Buffalo."

The Tanka Fund was already on the minds of the Wises through their work with the USDA. The relatively new organization has helped set up herds ranging from eight animals to 700, according to executive director Trudy Ecoffey. They are currently tied to 12 projects — mostly in South Dakota, but including one in Texas.

The biggest hurdle in acquiring bison, according to Ecoffey, is having the land to keep the animals. The Wise family had acreage once owned by David Wise's great aunt and uncle that he spent his childhood playing on. In addition to remodeling the house, they now were able to build corrals and trails for bison.

"It was just like a dream come true — everything coming together like that," Wise said. "And to finally see them and hear their hooves on the land, it made that whole dream become like reality."

'Mino Mashkiki'

The Wises both studied environmental science and have worked in conservation. In recent years they have focused their work on sustainable, pollinator-friendly farming without the use of non-organic chemicals.

Native Wise offers eggs, honey, wild rice, maple syrup and CBD products at farmers markets, Indigenous First Art & Gift Shop, Whole Foods Coop in Duluth and through a CSA (community supported agriculture) alongside the American Indian Community Housing Organization in Duluth. The products are branded with David Wise's grandmother's words: "Mino Mashkiki" or "good medicine."

The farmers' ideological focus remains the same as they have shifted to include the massive animals. Wise plans to grow the herd — starting with this year's mating season. He hopes the push of their hooves into the soil will spark the return of native plants. And he's in the process of researching humane harvesting techniques with an eye toward getting a portable unit that could be shared with other ranchers on tribal lands.

Wise said the pandemic brought to mind supply shortages and the dangers of relying on industrial, large-scale meat processing — both for health reasons and flavor.

"I think it's better when we can do it locally in small batches," he said. "It's better for the animals and the people."

Wise estimates that he can support up to 50 bison on his land — which now is just a female herd. He said he hopes to bring in male bison, bulls, during mating season and have calves by next spring. Wise has a 20-foot tepee he would like to use for a teaching lodge. But even without it, community members are stopping by and kids from AICHO recently visited and helped feed the bison.

"They're a really cool animal," Wise said. "I'm just looking forward to waking up and seeing them out there walking on the land.

"They look like they're so right on the landscape."