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Singing Back the Buffalo re-imagines collective future for Indigenous people and the Great Plains’ signature species

Buffalo Tasha Hubbard
Tasha Hubbard studies buffalo consciousness, which she also highlights in Singing Back the Buffalo.

Most Canadians know of the deep connections between Indigenous nations and salmon dating back thousands of years. These fish are not only central in First Nations people’s diets, but also to their culture, community, and identity.

However, many of us are far less familiar with spiritual links between the buffalo and Indigenous peoples who’ve lived on the Great Plains. Writer, filmmaker, and University of Alberta associate professor Tasha Hubbard’s new film, Singing Back the Buffalo, aims to change that. It recently screened at Toronto’s Hot Docs Festival and will be shown twice this week at the DOXA Documentary Film Festival in Vancouver.

The documentary features Hubbard, who’s from the Peepeekisis First Nation, standing in the sun-dappled Qu’Appelle Valley. She’s imagining herds of buffalo roaming through this picturesque part of southern Saskatchewan. From there, her film delves into the deep historical kinship and cycle of interdependency between Cree people and these large ungulates.

Singing Back the Buffalo
Singing Back the Buffalo derives its title from a Plains Cree tradition.

The near extinction of the buffalo in the 19th century—resulting from colonization—parallels what happened to Cree people. By 1890, the population of buffalos crashed to fewer 300, she reports.

“Without the buffalo sustenance, our ancestors fell into starvation and watched their loved ones die,” Hubbard says in the film.

Hubbard is the daughter of a residential school survivor, and was herself adopted into a settler couple’s home. With the support of her adoptive parents, she later reconnected with her birth family.

Like in her last film, îpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up, Hubbard makes wonderful use of animation to cover off some of the history. It drives home the horrors, but in a slightly softer way that adds distance.

Singing Back the Buffalo
Singing Back the Buffalo reveals deep inter-species spiritual connections.

Buffalo Treaty offers hope

But now, the buffalo are making a comeback, just like the Cree people who sing to them. Hubbard shows how this is unfolding in real time, visiting several First Nations along the way.

Thanks to the Buffalo Treaty, spearheaded by Blackfoot Elder Leroy Little Bear, Indigenous leaders across the Great Plains are working together to re-imagine a collective future where buffalos can move freely over vast tracts of territory.

The articulate and thoughtful Little Bear explains that if treaty supporters can convince governments to allow this to occur on some public lands, it will actually bring about ecological and environmental restoration. Moreover, he maintains that it will also advance the cultural restoration of Indigenous people.

And that, according to Hubbard, can create future for buffalo and Indigenous people to once again express their true selves in partnership with one another.

Singing Back the Buffalo is an ambitious and comprehensive film. But it’s not just a look back into history, like a Ken Burns documentary series. It pulsates with living, breathing human beings and remains firmly fixed in the present.

It’s also as gentle as a spring Prairie breeze, unfolding slowly and surely across the screen. And by the end, Singing Back the Buffalo leaves a refreshing feeling and the hope that the future can be so much brighter than the last 150 years.

Watch the trailer for Singing Back the Buffalo.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Toronto Spark editor Charlie Smith has worked as a journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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