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“I'm watching history”: Comanche Nation director shares thoughts on bison and her new documentary

Two people stand to either side of an open horse trailer as two bison run out of it onto snowy ground.
Florentine Films
A bison runs out onto the Eastern Shoshone pasture on the Wind River Indian Reservation in March of 2023 in a still from the PBS film “Homecoming.”

Julianna Brannum is a documentary filmmaker and citizen of the Comanche Nation. She is the director of the new PBS short film "Homecoming," which tells the story of the return of bison to Indigenous lands. The film is a companion to the recent Ken Burns documentary "The American Buffalo," which Brannum also worked on as a consulting producer.

Wyoming Public Radio’s Hannah Habermann spoke with Brannum.

This copy has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Hannah Habermann: Julianna, thank you so much for being here today. What is your personal relationship to bison and how did that connection shape the way you approached making this film?

Julianna Brannum: My relationship to bison really comes from being a Comanche person, a citizen of the Comanche Nation. We were one of the main buffalo tribes on the southern plains. We were traders and hunters of buffalo, they were part of our spiritual and cultural ways.

For me, we were in a time, for so long, where the buffalo went away. We did have the preserve here in Oklahoma, where I live, the Wichita Mountains Preserve right next to our Tribal headquarters. So we would see them often, but we always knew that it was an animal that was important to us and our identity and that it had gone away.

My great aunt grew up at a time where they had no buffalo at all, so we always knew from her that the beef we would eat and that she would hang up to dry like her mother and father had done before her, that that wasn't our meat. Like, that wasn't the meat that we were supposed to be eating but that was what we had to eat.

We really just saw the animal as in a zoo. We would get to drive through the mountains there and stop off on the side of the road and watch them from afar. And now with all the work that the InterTribal Buffalo Council does to return them to Tribal lands, we're seeing more and more of that introduced back into our diets, which I think is a really incredible thing to witness. I think it goes without saying that in order for a culture to be healthy, people have to be healthy, and buffalo is probably the healthiest meat you can have.

HH: So you mentioned the InterTribal Buffalo Council, and this film highlights the work of Eastern Shoshone tribal member Jason Baldes and the Intertribal Buffalo Council as they are working to return bison to different Indigenous lands. Can you share a little bit about what this work of repatriation looks like on the ground and how it benefits native communities and ecosystems?

JB: It's a lot of hustling. [Baldes] spends a lot of time in Washington D.C., where he has to lobby with the government to try to figure out basic things, like how to get the USDA [United States Department of Agriculture] to inspect their meat because the tribe is a sovereign nation. It's all brand new – we all have to come up with these new processes. And so he's lobbying there, and also it’s a lot of fundraising to be able to buy land for these tribes to be able to have their own herds. You have to have the infrastructure in place.

To me, it seems like the most challenging thing is land. For instance, my tribe, we don't have a reservation, and from the Dawes Act, our land is kind of checkerboarded. So, we don't necessarily have enough land to have a large herd.

We're seeing all these other tribes like in the Pacific Northwest and even in the Northeast that didn't rely on buffalo in the past, but have their own herds now because they're able to have the land base to do that.

HH: For you as a filmmaker, what were some particularly powerful or memorable moments from the process of making “Homecoming” that really stand out to you?

JB: It was fast and furious because you only have a day to pick up the animals really early in the morning and then transport them somewhere. They can't spend the night somewhere – you have to drive all day non-stop, fast bathroom breaks, and then you're back on the road to get them to their location so they're not stressed.

Probably the most exciting for me was when we brought a small herd of buffalo to the Menominee Reservation in Wisconsin. We brought them from the Nachusa Grasslands in Illinois. They had worked so hard to get the fence up in time to make sure [the bison] had everything they needed.

It had been kind of snowing and we were trying to get there before a storm hit. Everybody was just chomping at the bit, waiting for this trailer of buffalo to show up and they were all standing outside when we got there. We hopped out, threw the cameras on and met them out in this pasture. They were singing the song with this drum and all these young men were in a circle and talking with one another about what it all meant for them to see this.

Watching them, how emotional they were becoming at this moment, and then opening up that trailer – the sound of those hooves, they just came running off, busting out and just ran straight out into this tree line. It was just so beautiful, and I was looking around at all the spectators and everybody was just in tears.

Florentine Films
In a film still from “Homecoming,” bison arrive at the Menominee Indian Reservation in Wisconsin in November of 2022.

In Menominee, they haven't had buffalo up on that land for over 200 years, so it was a really, really big deal. And it was one of those moments where it kind of hits you and you're like, ‘Wow, I'm watching history.’

HH: That gives me a little bit of chills, just hearing that description. What was your path into storytelling and directing? And what kind of stories do you feel artistically or creatively motivated by?

JB: All my films have been about Native stories and I am really interested in history. I've always been geared towards a history story, but I appreciate the contemporary angle and how we can learn from our mistakes or maybe the things that we did we get right.

When it comes to Native stories, there's just no shortage of them. There's so many, just so many – we've got hundreds and hundreds of years to make up. I think a lot of communities were very private and reticent to share anything because of historic traumas. Nowadays, I think people are seeing the value in sharing those stories, because we’ve become less invisible and because we have so much to offer the world, not just our communities. I think if people were to really pay attention to what we've been saying all along about our environment and how to live in the natural world, then we'd probably be in a different place today.

HH: Looking forward, what do you think this process of returning bison to Indigenous lands might look like 10, 20 or 50 years down the road? What makes you hopeful in this space?

JB: For my tribe, I would hope that we have a decent sized herd and we completely erase beef from our diet, and that we can bring back some of our old traditions. For our tribe to be able to buy back more land would make it able to house a good amount of buffalo and sustain our community, possibly to be able to even trade or sell with other communities.

Our health in my tribe – it really needs attention. I think a lot of the younger kids are kind of put off by the idea of buffalo, because it's different, so different for them. But I think once they taste it, they're gonna realize it tastes even better, you feel good after you eat it. I would really like to see my tribe do a lot more with food sovereignty, and I think buffalo is the perfect place to start.

Hannah Habermann is the rural and tribal reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She has a degree in Environmental Studies and Non-Fiction Writing from Middlebury College and was the co-creator of the podcast Yonder Lies: Unpacking the Myths of Jackson Hole. Hannah also received the Pattie Layser Greater Yellowstone Creative Writing & Journalism Fellowship from the Wyoming Arts Council in 2021 and has taught backpacking and climbing courses throughout the West.

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