Rosalie Little Thunder

Rosalie Little Thunder

“When we talk about buffalo people, we’re not talking about buffalo and Lakota separately. It’s all one.”

“We live in a time when how to be a good human being in the natural world is diminished,” wrote Rosalie Little Thunder late one night in May, 2002, as she sat at her computer sending e-mails to dozens of Native and non-Native grassroots organizations. She was writing about the recent killing of 72 Yellowstone National Park buffalo in one day by the Montana Department of Livestock (DOL); so deeply embedded are these animals in Lakota spirituality that the news had kept her from sleeping.

A tenacious activist, member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation, award-winning bead artist, and Lakota language teacher, Little Thunder worked to protect wild buffalo from the mid-1990s until her death in 2014. She wanted these last wild buffalo not to disappear and for Native peoples to have more agency in their fate. In 1999 she led a group of Lakota Sioux on a 507-mile walk across Montana carrying a sacred pipe wrapped in a bundle in her arms. The difficult journey was offered as a sacrifice to honor the spirit of the many Yellowstone wild buffalo slain over the past few years by the Montana DOL. It was an act, she said, of spiritual activism: “When we co-existed with the buffalo for centuries, we could see its role in the ecosystem, in the natural world, and we adopted its ways, so when we talk about buffalo people, we’re not talking about buffalo and Lakota separately. It’s all one.”

I had the honor of working with Little Thunder in 2001 as we fought together – her as an Indigenous activist and me as an animal rights reporter – to try to close down one of the world’s largest hog factories being built on sacred Lakota lands in South Dakota. With Rosalie as my guide, I visited Rosebud Sioux Reservation just as Bell Farms was trying to get an enormous hog confinement facility built as fast as possible, pushing the deal through without a complete Environmental Impact Statement. As we worked together, Rosalie often talked to me about buffalo, and the more she spoke the more I began to grasp the huge cultural divide between the domesticated pig trapped in industrial agriculture and the wild buffalo, struggling to stay free.

Buffalo once roamed the Great Plains 50 to 60 million strong. During the late 19th century, in a few decades, they were nearly exterminated by the U.S. army and commercial hunters. Now, they number less than 5,000. These few thousand that have found refuge in Yellowstone National Park are the last remaining herd of genetically-pure, free-roaming buffalo in the United States – yet they curiously fall under the jurisdiction of livestock management, a classification that has significant ramifications. They can still legally be slaughtered. Why? For committing the crime of grazing beyond the Park’s boundaries into the state of Montana. When employees of the Montana DOL capture and kill the buffalo, they claim they are merely doing their job – protecting the cattle that graze on public lands from the threat of contracting a disease known as brucellosis (though no documented cases of transmission between buffalo and cattle have ever been reported).

“When we see how the buffalo functions in its ecosystem, we hold it to be sacred.”

To understand how protecting these animals came to be so important in Little Thunder’s life, we need to look back to the brutal winter of 1996-97. Snowdrifts in Yellowstone that year were 10 to 15 feet high. As buffalo meandered down from the mountains in search of grass, they crossed state lines and the Montana DOL opened fire, killing 1,100 in a few days. Filmmaker and environmentalist Mike Mease was one of the few people who witnessed the bloody killings and the only person recording what he saw. Little Thunder saw the video, had copies distributed to dozens of different tribes, and met Mease at Yellowstone National Park to see the carnage for herself.

Outraged at the disrespect shown to an animal her culture holds sacred, she participated in a Day of Prayer for the Buffalo alongside many spiritual leaders near where the killings were taking place. The sharp sound of gunshots interrupted the ceremony; the Montana DOL had just killed 14 buffalo in a nearby field. Without hesitation, Little Thunder rushed to the side of the slain buffalo to pray for them. She was immediately arrested for criminal trespassing. Later that year, Mease and Little Thunder co-founded Buffalo Field Campaign (BFC), a grassroots organization that works to stop the slaughter that continues to this day.

Economic inequality often leads to the poorest communities being hit hardest by pollution and environmental impacts. Rosebud Reservation struggles with a housing shortage, high unemployment, drug addiction, and poverty – factors that can make daily obstacles feel overwhelming. Perhaps that was why Bell Farms picked Rosebud Reservation for an enormous pig farming operation. After a long and costly legal battle fought by Humane Farming Association on behalf of the Tribe and tribal activists – which went all the way up to the Supreme Court – the project was initiated but then stalled. Only two of the 13 hog production sites originally proposed were built, and 12 years later they both were shut down. This was considered a huge win for the tribe. Today, the remaining 48 hog confinement buildings that sit on these two sites are all dilapidated, their roofs falling down and large cesspools of pig waste remaining untended. In this community, that’s the price of winning. The price of losing would have been much worse.

What does it mean to be a good human being in the 21st century? Little Thunder would say it requires being in right relationship with other-than-human powers of the natural world, including animals. She would tell us that it means listening to our ancestors, and recognizing that the earth holds lessons for us, and not the other way around. “My children still feed my father’s spirit,” she told me once. Can we find a way to feed Rosalie’s spirit by our actions today? She dreamed of wild buffalo returning to her reservation in great numbers. “After I am gone, I want there to be buffalo on this Earth. Maybe the buffalo will help us be here a little bit longer. Maybe they will help us survive.”

“Sacredness has a purpose, a very obvious purpose – to have reverence and acknowledge the power of the natural world.”


Photos and video courtesy of the Buffalo Field Campaign. Story by Tracy Basile.

Freelance journalist Tracy Basile has reported on animal welfare, wildlife, indigenous rights, food and farming. Her work has been published in Orion, ASPCA Animal Watch, Animal Welfare Institute Quarterly, Indigenous Survival and Spirituality & Health. She teaches writing at Saint Thomas Aquinas College and lives in the Hudson Valley of New York.

Seven Women Protecting Oceans and Sea Life

Seven Women Protecting Oceans and Sea Life

The amazing thing about aquatic animals is that they are at once so different and yet so similar to us.


Human activity is taking its toll on marine environments and threatening these fragile ecosystems. From pollution and overfishing to the impacts of our over-dependence on livestock farming, oceans and sea life are suffering.

But through sheer determination and dedication coupled with their wealth of experience, women all around the globe are offering hope for oceans and the animals who live in them. By exploring our relationship with marine environments and nurturing compassion within their communities, these female ocean warriors are tackling the issues head on, challenging our current attitudes and behaviours, and bringing us closer to this vital part of planet earth.

Meet seven women protecting the oceans and sea life:

Madison Stewart/aka ‘Shark Girl’

Australian filmmaker and conservationist, Madison Stewart, aka ‘Shark Girl,’ began scuba diving at the age of 11. By the time she was 14 years old, the sharks in the Great Barrier Reef that she knew and loved had been reduced to a mere few by government-approved gill net vessels. Stewart uses film as her medium to raise awareness and spark conversation about sharks and the issues affecting these highly misunderstood creatures.

“I always aim to either stop or change something happening to sharks but mainly to raise awareness in the hope that people join me in fighting for the change we so desperately need.”

Learn more about Stewart’s work and follow on her Facebook and Instagram.


Becca Franks/Visiting Assistant Professor with the Environmental Studies department of New York University 

Becca Franks is an environmental research scientist with a mission to tell the world why fish matter! In 2012, Becca Franks joined the Animal Welfare Program at The University of British Columbia, where she began studying fish and aquatic animal protection. Throughout her career, Franks has been interested in fundamental patterns of well-being. She is especially fascinated by the evidence that regardless of species, well-being is linked to learning, exploration, and discovery.

“My goal is to generate scientific information about aquatic animals that helps society see their true value. By true value I mean giving them the chance to express their behavioral and psychological potential so that we can appreciate what we have in common and celebrate what makes them unique. I believe that science can contribute to achieving this goal, but only if we study animals living in environments in which they can thrive.”

Learn more about Franks’s work.

Dr. Supraja Dharini/TREE Foundation

Dr. Supraja Dharini, founder of Trust for Environment Education, Conservation and Community Development (TREE Foundation) in India, is bringing awareness and commitment to protecting nature through biodiversity and conservation work with sea turtles, environmental education, and community development.Since its inception, and with the drive of Dr. Dharini behind it, TREE Foundation has seen significant successes for the threatened sea turtle populations with which it works.

“I was originally inspired by Dr. Jane Goodall who made me see and understand that each and every one of us can make a difference through our actions. Having been greatly saddened by seeing a deceased Olive Ridley sea turtle on the beach near my home, I decided there and then to establish TREE Foundation to address this problem and reduce sea turtle deaths. My job is to ensure that TREE Foundation makes lasting positive change for humans and marine life alike.”

Learn more about Dr. Dharini’s work and follow on TREE Foundation on Facebook.

Mary Finelli/Fish Feel

Mary Finelli is president and founder of Fish Feel, the first organization devoted to promoting the recognition of fishes as sentient beings deserving of respect and compassion. Fish Feel works to educate people about and advocate for fishes as sentient beings, but they also draw attention to the ways in which our own future is inextricably linked with that of fishes.

“Most people are so uninformed about fishes, many deny that they are sentient and some claim they are not even animals! I want to disabuse people of faulty notions about fishes, and help enlighten them as to how wondrous they are. I especially want them to realize that fishes suffer fear and pain, to be aware of the immense cruelties being inflicted on these many animals, and how it also harmfully impacts so many other species, including our own.”

Learn more about Finelli’s work and follow Fish Feel on Instagram and Facebook.

Puja Mitra/Terra Conscious

Puja Mitra, founder and director of sustainable tour operator Terra Conscious, is a professional conservation practitioner revolutionizing the tourism industry in Goa.

Mitra’s vision for the future of Goa’s rural communities and environment is inspiring local businesses to take collaborative action towards more sustainable and responsible tourism. By empowering rural communities through awareness and capacity-building programmes, Mitra and her team are helping those whose livelihoods depend on a thriving marine tourism industry to tackle conservation challenges.

“There is definitely more awareness about oceans and coasts now due to many initiatives and programmes established by a growing community of researchers and organisations across the country. But there is still lots more to do. Nurturing a more sensitive relationship with our oceans and coasts is key to enabling any lasting change in policy, the type of activities offered, and better representation for coastal communities.”

Learn more about Mitra’s work and follow Terra Conscious on Instagram and Facebook.

Dr. Lori Marino/The Whale Sanctuary Project

Neuroscientist and expert in animal behavior and intelligence, Dr. Lori Marino is the founder and president of The Whale Sanctuary Project. Dr. Marino has published over 130 peer-reviewed scientific papers, book chapters, and magazine articles on brain evolution, intelligence and self-awareness in other animals, human-nonhuman animal relationships, and captivity issues. Her mission with The Whale Sanctuary Project is to create the first permanent seaside sanctuary in North America for captive orcas and beluga whales.

“We want to create a permanent sanctuary for captive orcas and beluga whales who are living in concrete tanks.  There are permanent sanctuaries for all kinds of wild land animals and none yet for dolphins and whales (cetaceans)… on a broader level, the sanctuary will be a model for change in our relationship with cetaceans from one of exploitation to one of restitution. I hope that in addition to providing a better life for a few whales we will represent and catalyze a cultural shift that will lead to the end of keeping these animals captive for our entertainment and a move towards a more humble and respectful relationship with them in the future.”

Learn more about Dr. Marino’s work and follow The Whale Sanctuary Project on Facebook.

Dr. Sylvia Earle/S.E.A. – Mission Blue 

Dr. Sylvia A. Earle, founder of the Sylvia Earle Alliance (S.E.A.)/Mission Blue and Deep Ocean Exploration and Research (D.O.E.R.) is an oceanographer, explorer, author, and lecturer. Her contributions to the fields of scientific research and conservation have had an huge impact on our understanding of complex ocean processes and marine ecosystems. Through her work, Dr. Earle is inspiring global awareness and support for a worldwide network of marine protected areas – known as ‘Hope Spots.’

“In my lifetime, I’ve witnessed so much loss of biodiversity and a human population that has grown from around 2.5 billion to almost 8 billion. From the surface, the ocean seems to be in pretty good shape but once we get below the surface, we readily see the impacts of warming waters, abandoned fishing gear, discarded plastics, ship noise, and more. We also know that nature is resilient, if we stop actively damaging it.”

Learn more about Dr. Earle’s work and follow Mission Blue on Instagram and Facebook.