* Buffalo Ceremony Held in Yellowstone, Despite Government Shutdown
National Parks across the U.S. have been closed to the public since October 1st, when the federal government shut down amidst a political deadlock in Washington, D.C.
Despite the closures, buffalo opened the gates to Yellowstone National Park on Monday afternoon.
Led by Blackfeet tribal member and spiritual leader of the Blackfeet Confederacy, James St. Goddard, members of Buffalo Field Campaign and some visitors from afar entered the west entrance of Yellowstone National Park to gather and pray for the well-being and recovery of America's last wild buffalo.
St. Goddard approached Park Rangers to request access to Yellowstone National Park in order to exercise his First Amendment rights through a traditional prayer for the buffalo. According to National Park Service management policies, "The American Indian Religious Freedom Act reaffirms the First Amendment rights of Native Americans to access National Park System lands for the exercise of their traditional religious practices."
Park Rangers responded that St. Goddard's buffalo prayer request would have to be run up the "chain of command."
St. Goddard said the ceremony must be held before the coming winter for the Central Interior buffalo herds that have not recovered since Yellowstone National Park and the state of Montana slaughtered over half the herd during the winter of 2007-2008.
The Central Interior herds have also been heavily impacted by intensive hunting from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Nez Perce, and to a lesser extent, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and Montana hunters. This summer, the Park estimated 1,400 buffalo in the Central Interior – a disturbing and dramatic decline from the 3,500 buffalo that inhabited the region in 2005. Some scientists consider the Central Interior buffalo genetically distinct from the Northern Range buffalo.
While we waited at the entrance, more Park Rangers arrived, as did a group of elder ladies from Ohio, and a teacher and his students from Utah. The latter approached St. Goddard and his entourage to find out what was happening.
Word finally came down from the Park's "chain of command" that non-tribal members be excluded from entering the Park to participate in the ceremony. That command was rejected and the negotiation finally concluded with approval from Park Rangers to open the gate.
With a Park Ranger escort, the determined company made their way to Fountain Flats to hold their prayer in the presence of trumpeter swans, curious ravens, Yellowstone’s geysers, and buffalo bulls grazing along the Firehole River.
While the most powerful government in the world remains shut down and the gates to America's National Parks closed, the spirit of protecting the buffalo prevailed over these obstacles.