1. Buffalo Jump

The buffalo were running. People with burning torches were chasing them along the prairie. They all traveled westward to the river and the cliff that awaited. One moon ago, the snow had melted from this place where the prairie meets the mountains. A half-moon later, the people had burned the grassland. Now new grasses were sprouting everywhere, the prairie coming back to life after a long winter.

Niitsitapi—the people—were hungry. And the Iinnii—the buffalo—had come, as they always did in this season, to feast on the tender, rich grasses that had sprung up after fire. Everything was connected. The people could count on fire to bring grass and on grass to bring buffalo. Their survival and wellbeing depended on these relationships.

Buffalo covered the landscape as far as the people could see, darkening it with their wooly, brown bodies, making the earth quake with their thundering hoofbeats. Caught in this maelstrom, a young bull stumbled and fell. Unable to stop, his kin trampled him to death. The people and herd kept moving toward the river, leaving the young bull’s body behind.

When the herd had passed, Makoyi—the wolves—came and fed on the bull’s body and on the others who’d been trampled to death. The wolves would wait until the people had finished before going down to the river. They knew that the people would be there for a while, cutting up meat of the buffalo who’d fallen to their deaths, singing songs and making offerings to honor the lifeblood of these revered animals that sustained them throughout the seasons. But the people would eventually move on, taking the meat to their camp. Then the wolves would go to the river to feed on anything left. They had a long-standing agreement about these matters. There’d be enough for people and wolves, the herd would renew itself, and all would be well.


2. De-constructing Dickinson

Since 1996, my home has been a small log cabin in a wild valley in northwest Montana, where the grizzly bear, wolf, and cougar populations outnumber the human population. Four years ago I was offered a job as the Chief Scientist at Earthwatch Institute, to oversee a global citizen-science research program, with 50 projects on six continents. Many projects supported Indigenous use of traditional knowledge to heal the damage done by Colonialism. The catch was that I had to be based out of Boston, Massachusetts—a megalopolis. Much as I love Montana, I couldn’t turn this down.

If I had to live in a city, I could at least live in a place that provided some of the environmental ethos of Montana. Concord, Massachusetts, only twelve miles from my office and the home of the American Revolution, Romanticism, the modern environmental movement, the women’s rights movement, and the emancipation movement, turned out to be exactly that sort of place.

When not in Montana, I live in Concord in a small, historic house, nestled between Ralph Waldo Emerson’s, Louisa May Alcott’s, and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s homes. A federally protected wetland borders our backyard. Henry David Thoreau, also a Concordian, used to walk the path next to our land to get from Walden Pond to his patron Emerson’s home. Other iconic writers and poets, such as Emily Dickinson, lived nearby.

From her home in Amherst, Massachusetts, Dickinson wrote poetry rife with environmental sensibility. Long before I became an ecologist, I was a poet. I particularly loved Dickinson’s poem, To Make a Prairie, written in the mid-1800s:

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee.
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.

I still love this poem, for its simplicity and the caring about nature that shines through it. However, as an Indigenous woman who studies fire and grasslands, I now know that it takes more than clover and bees to make a prairie. Dickinson’s poem can be construed as a Romantic Era, Colonial version of what it actually takes to create a prairie. Clover, bees, and revery undoubtedly help. But it had taken much more than that to create the Massachusetts prairie about which Dickinson wrote—or any prairie.

A prairie is an ecosystem with moderate rainfall and vegetation consisting primarily of grasses, wildflowers, and shrubs, with few trees. Prairies tend to be fairly flat, although where there were glaciers, they can have rolling terrain. They matter to humanity, because of the many benefits they convey. For example, prairie grass roots thrust as far as twelve feet into the soil, sequestering a tremendous amount of carbon.

In 1620, when European settlers arrived in New England, far more prairie existed here than today. According to archeological data, there were also bison1 and fires set by Indigenous people here. Bison became extinct (along with many species, such as wolves) shortly after European settlement. In his brilliant book Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, environmental historian William Cronon writes about how New England prairies were artifacts of Indigenous burning and bison use of the land. Given this, and given my work as an ecologist who restores prairies, and with all due respect, here’s my de-Colonial version of Dickinson:

To make a prairie it takes bees and native grasses
and vast herds of buffalo that colour the earth brown
with their bodies from horizon to horizon,
fixing nitrogen deep into the earth with their pee,
enabling grass roots to thrust far down
to find the richest soil horizons.
It takes
Niitsitapi setting fires and singing songs,
faces painted, calling in the Iinnii, and then
running them to their deaths,
hooves thundering, prairie earth shaking,
plummeting over eskerine ridges, where
the people harvested flesh and bone
for sustenance across the seasons.
To make a prairie it takes smoke, songs, prayers,
and yes, deep, deep revery.

photo of buffalo on a prairie at dusk
To Make a Prairie, Photo by Cristina Eisenberg

To make a prairie we need to look to the past to learn how to live on land today to recreate the relationships that made that prairie in the first place. For at its most fundamental level, a prairie is about relationships that extend far back across millennia and are as much about what it means to be human as about what it means to be a prairie. Or a bee or a clover or a buffalo or a songbird or a dung beetle on that prairie.


3. Roots

In May 2018, my field crew and I walked into a forest patch on the prairie in Waterton Lakes National Park, in southwest Alberta. I knew this aspen stand intimately, because for the past eight years the park had been burning it experimentally to recreate the ecological effects of Indigenous burning. They wanted to reduce the extent of aspen forest and restore the prairie. We’d been studying the ecological benefits of these prescribed fires, which included heightened biodiversity. However, the previous autumn, a large wildfire had come through, burning every tree, grass, and shrub to the point that few remained alive. Now it was late spring, the snow recently melted, enabling us to assess the effects of that wildfire.

The conflagration had been so extreme that it had incinerated the ground, removing as much as two feet of soil in some places. I knew so because years earlier I’d placed rebar stakes in the ground to permanently mark plots in which I’d been measuring biodiversity by counting songbirds. To make these metal markers unobtrusive, I’d set them so that only one foot was exposed. Now three feet of rebar were exposed above the soil surface. The wildfire effectively had removed the earth’s “skin,” revealing amazing things.

Exposed roots lay everywhere. Aspen roots, pale gray, and also the distinctive russet, tangled roots of kinnikinnick—roots normally buried under two feet of soil. Fascinated, I explored this erstwhile aspen stand with a group of Kainai First Nation high school students, their teachers, and my Kainai field technicians. Also known as the Blood Tribe, one of the tribes that form the Blackfoot Confederacy, they’ve reclaimed their heritage and right to manage their lands in keeping with their culture—a process called reconciliation. I partner in my research with them. This powerful plains tribe historically inhabited much of what are today Alberta and Montana and has the largest reserve in Canada. Their woodland, the Blood Timber Limit, abuts Waterton’s southeast boundary, near the US/Canada border. This land and the park tell a compelling story about changes in the land in the past 170 years.

Kainai High School students were with me as Earthwatch Community Fellows, supported by generous grants from the Kainai Board of Education, the AGL Foundation, and the Davin Family. As part of the process of reconciliation, students were learning ecological restoration field methods within a research project rooted in their traditional ways. Our objective was to empower these young people to heal the damage done to their land by Colonialism. Elliot Fox led my mostly Kainai field staff, who functioned as role models for the students and mentors for me in parsing prairie ecology.

Astonished by the revelations of the wildfire, we began to find things besides roots. One young woman picked up the jawbone of what turned out to be a wolf—an ancient bone from the weathered, yellowed looks of it. Given that it takes a thousand years for an inch and a half of soil to form in this part of the West, that bone could’ve been as much as 10,000 years old. Kainai technician Alex Shade found an intact bison skull on the ground. Judging from its jutting horns, which were far straighter than those of a modern bison, it was likely the skull of Bison antiquus, a Pleistocene species that had become extinct 10,000 years ago.

photo of two researchers and an ancient buffalo skull on the Waterton Prairie
Ancient Buffalo Skull on the Waterton Prairie, Photo by Cristina Eisenberg

Kainai elder and anthropology PhD student Mike Bruised Head said it was probably a young buffalo who’d been trampled in a stampede to a nearby cliff. He shared stories about how his Blackfoot ancestors had used this landscape to run these animals over cliffs, called buffalo jumps. They’d plummet to their deaths, to be harvested by the tribe for food. A Blackfoot tradition, burning made the grasses sprout more vigorously, in effect “calling in” the bison. He said that native science was inseparable from Blackfoot spirituality, which incorporated their deep connections to the bison and wolves that roamed that land, who they saw as teachers.


4. Roots of Knowledge and Knowing

As a community ecologist who for the past twelve years has been studying food-web relationships in Waterton, the Kenow wildfire’s revelations left me with much to think about and confirmed that there were traditional ways of knowing and inhabiting this place, which contemporary Western science was just beginning to grasp. These ways of knowing could go far to help us understand how ecosystems work.

Cultural ecosystems are those developed under the joint influence of natural processes and human-imposed organization. Ecosystems aren’t just assemblages of organisms, they’re expressions of human, floral, and faunal co-evolution in response to past environmental conditions. Cultural ecosystems include those shaped by Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK)—knowledge and practices passed as stories and songs from generation to generation informed by strong cultural practices and rituals, such as traditional dances. TEK includes sensitivity to change and reciprocity. Unlike Western science, TEK observations are qualitative and long-term. Observers tend to be people engaged in subsistence practices, such as hunting, fishing, and gathering. Their survival is linked to the health of the land. Most importantly, TEK is inseparable from a culture’s spiritual and social fabric. In the Indigenous worldview, it takes all of what it means to be human—body, mind, heart, and spirit—to understand something ecologically. This means that TEK offers important ecological insights, but also a cultural framework that includes values that can help solve environmental problems.2 TEK practices increase biodiversity and ecological resiliency by creating fine-grained, patchy landscape mosaics. Used by Indigenous people for millennia to increase natural production of food and medicine, these practices include setting fires to modify vegetation.

In the context of our Waterton research, TEK means considering the ecological impacts of fire, but also its cultural framework. In Kainai culture, wise use of fire includes understanding the succession patterns it creates (e.g., reducing the extent of aspen), but also the spiritual responsibility for participating in land stewardship. Here, this stewardship involved the interconnections between fire, wolves, bison, and grasslands.

Waterton has high international conservation valence. The centerpiece of the much larger transboundary Crown of the Continent Ecosystem, its unique setting, which includes the mountain/prairie confluence, has created plant communities and ecological complexes like nowhere else on Earth. In 1932 UNESCO, a branch of the United Nations, combined Waterton (Alberta, Canada) with Glacier National Park (Montana, US) to form the world’s first International Peace Park. This peace park is also a UNESCO World Heritage site—a landmark site with cultural and/or natural significance so exceptional that it’s of common importance for present and future generations of all humanity, and a UNESCO International Biosphere Reserve. Biosphere Reserves foster integration of people and nature for knowledge sharing, poverty reduction, human wellbeing, respect for cultural values, and to cope with global change. In recognition of our long-term ecological research that’s helping Waterton and the Kainai First Nation restore this prairie, in November 2017 the EcoHealth Global Network selected ours as one of seven model ecological restoration projects.

In our study we’ve found that the park grassland, which is shortgrass prairie, is as much as 97 percent intact—composed of mainly native grasses. Shortgrass prairie occurs between the Rockies and the mixed-grass prairie of the east, and runs north-south from central Alberta to central Texas. Today because of agriculture, only 3 percent of native shortgrass prairie remains. This makes the Waterton grassland one of the most precious prairie patches in North America.

Mile-thick glaciers once covered this region and retreated around 12,000 years ago. They melted from below, creating rivers of meltwater that sculpted channels in the landscape, called eskers, undulating the landscape. New soil formed, giving rise to grasses. Blackfoot ancestors arrived shortly after the icemelt or even earlier. They kept the prairie open by setting light fires, which invigorated the grasses and attracted bison. This means that grasses here co-evolved with fire.

Within two days of being burned, prairie grasses send up hundreds of shoots from their root collars. Savvy bison would arrive shortly after a fire to graze the newly sprouted, high-protein grasses. Because bison can only nourish themselves from grass, they’d horn up any woody vegetation encroaching on the grassland. As for the wolves—they kept the bison and other large herbivores, such as elk, on the move, ensuring that the grasses weren’t over-grazed. And this thrumming web of life created and nurtured the prairie.

European settlers brought agriculture, which they applied zealously to tame this wild landscape. They eliminated fire, both wild and set by humans. They put Indigenous people on reserves and forced them into residential schools (a program ongoing in Canada until the late 1990s) to shed their Indigenous ways and adopt white ways. Many students didn’t survive those schools. The ones who did emerged deeply scarred physically and emotionally. The 1800s were a time of mass genocide. “Gifts” of smallpox-laden blankets killed 90 percent of the Blackfoot and other tribes. Market hunting and climate change caused bison near-extinction. Ranchers extirpated wolves, considered a threat to sheep and cattle. Without wolves, elk exploded in number and raided haystacks. Without fire, wolves, and bison, aspen began to take over the grassland. And so the system limped along, functioning like an engine missing some of its most important parts. Socially, this broken ecology affected human ecology, creating deep, trans-generational trauma for Indigenous people, which continues today.

Ecological restoration is the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that’s been degraded, damaged, or destroyed. In Waterton, managers had worked to repair the damage by restoring two out of the missing three forces of nature (wolves, fire). They’d allowed wolves to return naturally, drifting down on their own from the far north. Acknowledging the importance of wildfire and the ecological wisdom of Blackfoot burning practices, in 2006 park managers began to set prescribed fires.

By 2008 the park was setting beautiful, 1,500-acre prescribed fires in a mosaic of mostly low- to moderate-severity burns (fire severity means amount of damage to plants). These fires invigorated the grassland, but also caused aspen to sprout madly. Elk normally eat aspen, particularly the tender saplings that come up post-fire. However, with wolves present, elk avoided aspen stands—dangerous places where they could easily stumble when chased by wolves. Without bison, the park had to continue prescribed burning, lest aspen take over the grassland. Against this restoration conundrum the Kenow wildfire erupted, effectively resetting this carefully managed system to what fire ecologists and climate-change experts were calling “the new normal.”


5. The Kenow Wildfire

On August 30, 2017, a sultry Rocky Mountain summer night, lightning struck multiple times just north of the US/Canada border. Since early June, pervasive drought had gripped these typically moist forests. It was a perfect storm. When lightning strikes in the woods, most ignitions fizzle out. But in the hyper-hot, dry air of August 30, several strikes caught fire and grew, leaving managers short on resources with tough choices. Prioritizing those that presented the highest risk to humans, they let burn a lightning-caused wildfire on Kenow Mountain in southeast British Columbia, in thickly vegetated backcountry. It moved insidiously northeast toward Alberta. On September 2, the Kenow wildfire sparked a one-acre spot fire within Waterton’s west boundary.

I arrived in the park on September 4, to collect data as planned months earlier. The air was surprisingly clear. I stopped at the warden office, where managers briefed me about the fire. Pointing to a map, they laid out several scenarios. Each involved “trigger points,” so called because by crossing them, the fire would trigger proactive management actions, such as evacuation. However, on that date the fire burned two mountain ranges west of the park. Between it and the park were a whole lot of big limestone mountains. And managers were watching it closely. Feeling reassured, I drove to the park research house, where we were staying, and welcomed Earthwatch volunteers.

Fires burned everywhere that summer. That first night in Waterton, after supper, we walked to Upper Waterton Lake and stood on the shore in the dusk, watching a pyro-cumulus cloud build from another fire over Glacier National Park, 20 miles south. These clouds form when heat rises from a fire’s smoke plume, creating strong air currents that carry ash, smoke, and water vapor. The cloud grew taller and taller, roiling upward. Then it abruptly collapsed, spewing firebrands. Meanwhile, in Waterton, the air remained clear, lending a surreal feeling to the scenario before us.

The next day, the park issued an evacuation alert. This was the final day when I or park staff would be allowed to gather any ecological data. We raced that day to collect whatever data we could in our “control” unburned site on the park’s eastern edge. The next morning, a pall of smoke in the air, we calmly evacuated ourselves from the park

We moved our field base to a funky motel 34 miles east of the park in the small town of Cardston. Our unit had a kitchenette. The décor consisted of Alex’s Kanai ceremonial drum and lots of boxes of field equipment and raw data. Everyone remained in good spirits. In the evenings we’d drive to a Waterton overlook to watch the fire advance toward the prairie, the sun a gold ball in an amber sky. This fire and others spread ash that created spectacular sunsets all the way to the Midwestern US.

aerial photo of the Kenow wildfire
Kenow Wildfire, Photo by Ryan Peruniak

Personnel from across Canada fought the Kenow wildfire, which grew rapidly. On September 11, after being held at bay on the park’s western boundary for eight days, it exploded into the Cameron Valley in the late afternoon, fanned by high winds. It tore through thickly forested valleys, into park grasslands, and by that evening had moved onto private lands outside the park.

A second evacuation order came, this time for Cardston and communities east of the park. It arrived as a text on my smartphone at 3:30 a.m. So I did what any sensible person would do. I made a pot of strong coffee, a hearty breakfast, and began to pack. We shuttled Earthwatch volunteers north to Calgary, and then headed south, back through the smoke-choked fire zone, under an ominous blood-red sky, to the safety of my Montana home, just before fire closed the border.

Throughout the night, firefighters worked tirelessly to protect the Waterton townsite, saving everything except the visitor center. Firefighting continued for one week. The fire wasn’t officially “held” until September 19, when the weather changed, bringing snow.

The Kenow wildfire ended up burning half of the Park’s vegetation, mostly with extreme to high severity. This severity was unprecedented; even the famed 1988 Yellowstone fires had burned with mostly low to moderate severity. But the Kenow wildfire broke ground in other ways. It quadrupled in size in two days, burning over 100,000 acres. At one point the firefront was a 600-foot-tall, three-mile-wide wall of flame. Powerful winds shoved this wall 30 miles across the landscape in two hours, faster than a human could run. Surprisingly, most wild animals didn’t perish. The forests, on the other hand, were toast.


6. Iniskim

Because of the evacuation, we spent time in other landscapes, trying to make ourselves useful. One of those places was the Blood Ranch, a rangeland on the northeast edge of the Blood Reserve, 50 miles from Waterton. Managed primarily for conservation and sustainable ranching, this mixed-grass prairie represents an ecotone, or transition zone, between the great tallgrass prairies of the east and the shortgrass prairies of the west. Composed of both shortgrass and tallgrass species, mixed-grass prairie is richer in biodiversity than either. Its grasses include tallgrass species blue gramma and little bluestem, which don’t occur in Waterton, and shortgrass species Idaho fescue and bluebunch wheatgrass, which do.

And so we put in test plots, measuring the grasses on this tribal rangeland, unprepared for what we found. Plot after plot consisted of 100 percent native grasses. This prairie was completely intact. Astonished, I took a break and sat back, taking it all in. When I closed my eyes, I could hear, smell, and see the generations of bison that had used this land. Keeping my thoughts mostly to myself, I kept measuring grasses, finding only native species.

Three days later, we gathered to wrap up our field season at a medicine wheel not far from the Blood Ranch. Tribal elder Mike Bruised Head led a pipe offering there. Many of the Kainai High School Community Fellows who’d been with us in May joined us to give thanks for a successful field season. Afterward, we shared a bison feast at Mike’s home, near the Blood Ranch.

When we finished supper, Mike took us to where we’d been putting in plots, the very spot where I’d closed my eyes and had seen bison, their massive bodies filling the landscape. Next to this intact prairie stood a riparian cut bank. As we scrambled down it to the river, I looked up. Embedded in the cut bank were layer upon layer of buffalo bones—about 10,000 years’ worth of bones, according to Mike.

I walked along the river in reverie, assimilating the significance of this site, the intact grasses, the traditional ways of living on the land, the millennia of relationships that had created this prairie. As I walked, I spotted a nacreous stone amid the smooth, gray river cobbles. The mysterious, fey stone beckoned me, so I picked it up. Then I saw another and another. Some were conjoined into six-foot-long elegant serpentine shapes. Mike said they were baculites, also known as Iniskim, or buffalo stones. Fossils of an extinct squid-like genus that includes ammonites, they dated back 90 million years, to the late Cretaceous Period. Blackfoot traditionally gather these stones to bring blessings and hunting success with buffalo.

You don’t find an Iniskim, an Iniskim finds you. A long time ago, the Blackfoot were camped and hadn’t found buffalo in a long time. A young woman heard a song, and went walking on the prairie to look for who had made that song. But she only found stone. When she turned back toward camp, the stone began to sing. So she picked up the stone and kept it. That night she dreamed of a buffalo song. And the next day, the buffalo came.

Mike told me to pick up that Iniskim. So I did, and slipped it into my pocket.


7. The Missing Piece

photo of a person in a field of purple flowering fireweed
After the Fire, Photo by Elliot Fox
One year later, fireweed and lupine miraculously mantle the Waterton prairie. Banks of reed grass, a nutritious, soil-stabilizing native species, have sprouted from seeds contained deep within the soil. These stalwart pioneers thrive after fire, in the process rebuilding, renewing, and enriching the burnt soil for the plants that will come—what ecologists call primary succession. Life goes on. The prairie is thriving post-Kenow wildfire. The rich evidence we found of Blackfoot relationships with buffalo, and how those relationships created this prairie, emphasize that all that’s missing now are wild buffalo. Thanks to the Buffalo Treaty Kainai elder Leroy Little bear has created, they’ll be returning soon. As for my Iniskim—it’s taught me that making and saving a prairie means saving ourselves. That to make and save a prairie one needs revery, burning sage, and courage. And it’s telling me that as surely as fire and wolves have returned, the bison are finding their way home.


[1] The term “buffalo” is typically used to refer to the species Bison bison and its relatives and ancestors, from an Indigenous perspective. The term “bison” is used to refer to this species from a Western science perspective. Both are correct and can be used interchangeably, depending on context and audience.

[2] There are many publications on this topic. See for example Robin Kimmerer, “Weaving Traditional Ecological Knowledge into Education: A Call to Action,” Bioscience 52, no. 5 (2003):432-438.