PINE RIDGE, S.D. — Charles “Bamm” Brewer knew from years of experience that the buffalo would bunch up in a certain canyon as they were being herded during the annual fall roundup of the Oglala Lakota Tribe’s herd.
He thought it would make an interesting scene to capture, so he had his iPhone video camera rolling as the herd was funneled into the canyon at Charging Crossing, named after his great-grandmother, a survivor of the Wounded Knee Massacre.
The buffalo bunched as Brewer predicted — but then something happened on that chilly morning on Monday, Nov. 4, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwest South Dakota.
Steam rising from the running buffalo herd’s warm bodies and from their exhaled breath formed a cloud that hovered over the buffalo as they ran, a stirring scene that conjured a spiritual vision in Brewer’s mind.
“The vision is this is what the ancestors saw a long time ago,” he said, explaining that he was thinking of the Oglala who hunted buffalo on horseback for generations.
Brewer first saw a steam cloud rising from running buffalo when he was chasing the herd during a roundup 20 years ago while riding a “green-broke” horse.
“When you get in that close you can smell them,” he said. “It’s just powerful to see that. The vision you see is this — you were running with the buffalo, you were running with the warriors long ago.”
This year, Brewer was helping with the roundup while riding an all-terrain vehicle instead of a fast horse. He also pitched in as cook for the roundup, serving elk stew.
Once again, during this fall's roundup, he saw the mystical steam cloud rising from the buffalo and once again he saw the vision.
He was prepared because he knows the tribe’s buffalo pasture well, located next to his own buffalo pasture, where he has his own herd of 40 buffalo.
“I’ve been chasing buffalo back there, so I know where the cool sites are,” he said.
He posted his video to his Facebook page, and thousands of others have shared it through social media.
“They’re seeing the cloud,” he said of those watching the video. “That’s probably making it more majestic. The video doesn’t show the heat or the smell when you actually run into the herd or follow it.”
Brewer also wore a GoPro video camera that he used to video-record the roundup but hasn’t found the time to post it. He’s still helping with the roundup, a fall ritual that is performed to keep the herd healthy through annual vet checks, Brewer said.
“I got some really cool footage,” he said.
His work with buffalo at Pine Ridge goes beyond raising his own herd and helping with the tribe’s herd.
Brewer wears many hats. He has several jobs, including managing an auto repair garage and organizing the annual Crazy Horse Memorial Ride, a tribute to the famous Oglala Lakota warrior, who was killed after surrendering to the army at Fort Robinson in Nebraska in 1877.
He also has played an instrumental role in efforts to reintroduce buffalo into the Oglala Lakota diet. He helped open the Charging Buffalo Meat House last year, a plant to process buffalo.
The plant sits 6 miles west of the community of Pine Ridge, where it is conveniently located near one of the tribe’s buffalo pastures.
So far, the plant is doing custom processing for individual patrons, but wants to expand the facility’s role to include commercial processing. The tribe's herd is approaching 1,000 buffalo, and Brewer runs one of three private herds at Pine Ridge, he said.
“We want to graduate into a fully inspected plant,” he said. That’s his vision.
In fact, the idea has its roots in that ride 20 years ago, when he first saw a steam cloud rising from the running buffalo herd as they kicked up snow and dirt. It also inspired another vision.
That vision, he said, was to “bring the buffalo back to the people.”