RESTORING CONNECTIONS AND TRADITION
PHOTOGRAPHY MELINDA ORTLEY
Before 1800, between 30 and 60 million bison roamed the North American Plains. By 1890, only around one thousand remained.
One of the first lessons we learn in grade school is that talking during class warrants a teacher’s reprimand. But when Theda Pogue was in kindergarten, it wasn’t when she was talking but what language she was talking in that caused a sharp sting on her hand.
“I was talking to my cousin in our Native American tongue, and our teacher slapped our wrists and told us that we speak English in class,” Theda says. Then she slowly repeats herself. “She said we speak English in class.”
At one time, the Native Americans of the North American Great Plains relied solely on native bison for survival, and the bison’s targeted demise was a way to force Native American submission by cutting tribes off from their means of self-sufficiency. Along with meat, a single bison would supply clothing, shelter, household items like spoons and bowls, and medicine. Over 90 products could be made from a single animal. Living in harmony with the migratory patterns of the herd was as physically essential as it was spiritual.
Despite both having experience in adolescence with FFA and raising livestock, when Theda and her husband, Chris Pogue retired from the U.S. Navy and decided to buy a farm, they didn’t set out to become bison ranchers, much less Texas bison advocates. In September of 2017, it was sheer chance that Chris passed by a field of bison as they purchased their land in Sulphur Springs to start GP Ranch. Chris made quick friends with the herd’s owner.
He learned that Southern Plains bison are genetically adapted to the native grasses populating the Pogues’ 60 acres of Blackland Prairie and, without much effort, they naturally regenerate the soil. A bison herd requires far less hands-on maintenance than a herd of cattle. For instance, Chris says, “you never have to pull a bison calf like you do with cattle because their genetics haven’t been tampered with. It’s not stress-free (ranching), but it can be less stressful.”
The Pogues’ retirement farm quickly morphed into an enterprise. GP Ranch became a sought-after producer of grass-fed bison meat, supplying North Texas brick-and-mortar grocers and restaurants and offering direct-to-consumer shopping at several DFW farmers markets. But keeping up with demand wasn’t sustainable.
After reflection, they realized that selling only meat at an industrial pace did not mirror their agricultural values or honor Theda’s Native American heritage of using the whole animal. So they pulled their website and put the brakes on the operation. “It all changed when I realized I don’t have to feed the world. I just need to help feed my community,” Chris says.
They began teaching the entire process of farming and ranching to anyone who would learn, opposing blind reliance on the modern food supply chains and fostering the lost ways of self-sufficiency. Through classes on animal husbandry and gardening held on request at their ranch, they hope to reconnect consumers, and school children, to their food sources and help farmers find additional ways to supplement their income, instead of chaining themselves to the “more … more … more” cycle of consumer demand that the Pogues were all too familiar with.
And what better animal than the bison to model that reconnection? Learning how to raise, process, and transform a bison hide into a blanket, for example, is novel to the suburban consumer but priceless to a burnt-out rancher needing to extract added value from a smaller herd.
These skills hold elevated significance to the Great Plains Native Americans and are the fabric of their culture. Organizations like the Intertribal Buffalo Council and individual tribes are leading movements to teach Native American children the old ways of self-reliance. In addition to classes held at their ranch, Theda is also working with her own Muskogee (Creek) and Seminole Nation tribes in Oklahoma as well as the Choctaws on similar programming to re-establish their sacred relationship with the bison. The Lakota tribe in South Dakota has reached out for advice on creating a summer program to teach tribal children to make dream catchers from bison bones, traditions which fell out of favor in exchange for modern conveniences.
“It’s so amazing to see [our] Native American children have pride in what they’ve done and even to help supply their family with food through a garden they planted,” Theda says.
GP Ranch is no longer busting at the seams. They are now intentional about the animals they raise: a few flocks of chickens, a handful of Red Wattle pigs, and a small bison herd. They house only enough animals to feed their family, share with their community, and teach others, including local elementary school students, to be more self-sufficient.
Instead of gatekeeping his expertise, Chris donates his time helping bison ranchers start up and troubleshooting established operations, like neighboring Tesoro Ranch. He is a frequent speaker at Texas Bison Association conferences and answers daily phone calls from ranchers nationwide. But it’s the neighbors popping in for help or a church or tribe member needing food that holds the couple’s attention.
“Instead of a fence, build a bigger table,” Theda says. Today, if you want to stock your freezer with GP Ranch bison, you’ll be personally involved in the slaughter and processing of your bison, with Chris as your guide. Then, the Pogues can turn the hide into a blanket—which takes no less than 130 hours of work—or a number of byproducts. As a result, they dwell in a spirit of no waste, where the whole animal is honored as in the Native American tradition.
In 2016, President Obama signed the National Bison Legacy Act, making the American bison the national mammal. Today, there are roughly 500,000 bison in North America, with 10 percent roaming in conservation parks and 90 percent held in private herds.
Through the proliferation of the Southern Plains buffalo, Theda and Chris hope to promote self-sufficiency— whether ranching, gardening, or crafting items from byproducts—and preserve Native American cultural heritage while empowering future generations to incorporate these traditional ways into modern living.
For educational opportunities at GP Ranch, email Chris and Theda at [email protected]. To find local bison meat producers, visit TexasBison.org/blogs/texasbison-producers. IG: @gp_ranch_5 & FB: @GPRanch5
TESORO RANCH BISON is located in Talco, Texas, about 20 miles from the Pogues’ ranch. Tina and Charlie Valdez were introduced to bison meat through their crossfit gym. They attended the Texas Buffalo Association conference before buying their first herd. Chris was driving along back roads when he spotted bison, so he dropped a business card in the mailbox, with a note offering help if it was ever needed. As fate would have it, the keynote speaker Tina had taken pages of notes from (Chris) was now her neighbor. The Valdezes specialize in grass-fed high-quality bison stock for breeding and meat operations.
THE TEXAS TRIBAL BUFFALO PROJECT is a non-profit organization in Gonzales, Texas, dedicated to restoring the traditional relationship between the Lipan Apache people and the Southern Plains buffalo. Through restoring the natural buffalo population in Texas and creating space to learn and gather, founder and CEO Lucy Contreras is reconnecting indigenous members with lost tribal traditions of living in synchronicity with the buffalo. The goal is to heal generational wounds and preserve Lipan Apache culture for future generations. And as an indigenous buffalo producer, a priority for Contreras is to grow and maintain the herd, providing access to healthy meat and healing Texas soil through regenerative ranching methods.
Donate, purchase meat, and learn more: TexasTribalBuffaloProject.org
Find Your Story: if you have ancestral ties to Texas or call Texas your home, please take part in this survey. texastribalbuffaloproject.org/communitysurvey
MELINDA ORTLEY is a Fine Art Photographer who believes that every image should stand alone as a work of art. Using the classic medium of film, her goal is to create vibrant, original images that go beyond her client's expectations, whether that client be a blushing bride, growing family, business owner or magazine editor. You can view her portfolio at www.melindamichelle.com.