I stood in a wide-open field where the tall native grasses reached to grip the horizon, the only visual stitching between land and sky. I felt connected to the earth, something that I hadn’t felt in a long time. Grounded. Rooted. Humbled. Harmonious. (Feelings I most certainly do not get as I go about my daily life in the city.) As I took in my surroundings, I sensed the rest of the team also taking a moment of pause. One by one, gradually they seemed to be feeling their unity with the earth too.
Squinting our eyes in the warm sun, our team observed the site, watching the grasses sway in the wind, the eagles impressively soaring through the skies. Then we noticed something peculiar — a line of nine buffalo, standing almost shoulder to shoulder, staring back at our group.
We heard laughter to the left of us and turned to see Lucille Contreras with pure amusement on her face. She declared that she had never seen the buffalo look so curious before.
Contreras is the founder and chief executive officer of the Texas Tribal Buffalo Project (TTBP), a nonprofit dedicated to developing our relationship with the Iyanee’ (buffalo, in Apache) and healing the generational trauma of the Lipan Apache and other Indigenous communities and tribes in Texas. A native Texan, Contreras spent time on Knife Chief Buffalo Nation, a buffalo reservation in South Dakota. The experience left her with a deep sense of connection to her Lipan Apache heritage; consequently, she hopes to re-establish that connection for the native peoples in Texas. Thus the TTBP was born.
Our paths crossed when the TTBP contacted the AIA San Antonio Professional Path to Leadership Program (2PLP), a leadership course for emerging professionals, in March 2022 to gauge our interest in performing work pro bono for the nonprofit. The result was the development of a master plan for TTBP’s property in Waelder with three distinct zones: a market, a headquarters, and a campsite, each designed to support the mission of the organization through a concept related to the buffalo.
The design team consists of seven emerging professionals from the 2PLP program: Justin Chetty; Gabriel De Leon, Assoc. AIA; Josh Nieves; Oscar Prado Yanez; Ethan Ryden; Antonio Sanchez; and me. Inspired by the wonder of the buffalo, we banded together to work with Contreras to further her organization’s mission. A nomadic tribe, the Apache had a strong spiritual and survival connection to the buffalo, as did other Texas Indigenous peoples such as the Caddo, Karankawa, Coahuiltecan, Kickapoo, and Jumano. Says Contreras: “The buffalo is everything to us in life. Traditionally, it was used for food and shelter as well as spiritual strength, and so today we try to use every part of the buffalo just as we used to use it before.”
What is the distinction between buffalo and bison? This is a common question — and for good reason. Aside from their physical attributes, geographical location is an important factor that distinguishes the two. While the definitive scientific and common North American term for the Iyanee’ aligns with “bison,” Indigenous peoples have a history of calling them “buffalo”; as part of decolonizing their language, they utilize the term “buffalo” rather than “bison.”
As an Indigenous woman-led movement, this project is reintroducing rematriation (this term is used instead of the patriarchal term “repatriation” for the reclaiming of ancestral remains, spirituality, culture, knowledge, and resources) and kinship between Texas Indigenous communities and connection to our buffalo relatives. Trauma endured by the Indigenous community includes scarcity, murder, loss, and displacement. Despite this, the TTBP aims to help re-establish the traditional homeland of the Lipan Apache and other nations, as well as the home range of the Southern Plains Bison. Preservation of buffalo in Texas is an example not only of wildlife protection but of strengthening and reclaiming connection to the lands and to traditional knowledge.
Contreras hopes that the TTBP will provide modern Indigenous communities of Texas with a means of cultural reconnection and with a pathway for tribal and food sovereignty. Additionally, she hopes that any visitor can feel a sense of kinship with the land and the buffalo. What the team felt during the initial site visit is just what Contreras had envisioned people would feel when they visit the ranch — the gravity of their relationship and reconciliation with nature. From the Indigenous perspective, we are all creatures of the earth. We are all relatives of the buffalo.
The 2PLP team visited the ranch in Waelder on a beautiful day in April. Contreras walked us around the site, pointing out every special feature and detail of this seemingly sacred place. She walked us through large grass fields, to dusty areas under a low tree canopy where the buffalo like to roll, around the pond, and through man-made structures that serve as the organization’s headquarters. Contreras gleamed as she talked about TTBP’s vision for the future and how that could translate to physical space and experiences.
The scope of the project was simple: Develop three unique zones within the site that promote the mission and growth of the TTBP. We were tasked to design so minimally and humbly that you barely notice the transition between interior and exterior. The design philosophy is to allow the architecture to recede so that the experience of the land remains most prominent. Each zone is centered around a fundamental quality that the buffalo provide — nourishment, knowledge, and connection.
Zone 1 addresses nourishment. A small portion of the property at the southwest corner, near Highway 1296, has remained fenced off from the buffalo. The idea for this zone is to create a small market for pop-up events where local vendors can sell goods and to better connect the work of the TTBP with the local community. The market stand would be built of simple and durable materials that match the existing aesthetic and meet functional needs. The market would create a street presence for TTBP and serve as a safe space from which to view the buffalo, as it would be located close to the safety fence and would frame a view of the animals.
Zone 2 encompasses the headquarters and is designed around knowledge acquisition. A humble homestead central to the site, along with a nearby home and a small hempcrete structure, currently serves as the TTBP’s official headquarters. The design objective for this area is to create and develop facilities for the compound. Guided by the vision, volunteer housing, a community kitchen and garden, an art studio, and a barn will be added and made available for both volunteers and visitors to learn about the buffalo through different mediums.
Zone 3 provides the most hands-on experience with buffalo through direct connection. This zone, known as the camp, surrounds the property’s large pond. The camp will tailor and enhance the visitor experience by providing campsites, a boathouse, outdoor office space, and trails. The hope is to attract people who want to interact with nature and the buffalo, as well as people who want to work remotely among the buffalo for a day.
Development of the three zones serves as a small but powerful act of rematriation and stewardship. While the trauma Indigenous peoples have endured can never be undone, the TTBP emphasizes and re-establishes the importance of the relationship with our buffalo ancestors for a modern era. Health and healing are instrumental objectives that radiate from the mission into each zone and into the spatial and architectural design — alleviating disconnection, invoking curiosity, and setting the stage for a cohesive cultural narrative.
The organization welcomes the curious to visit the ranch. To learn more about the stories, mission, and voices of the TTBP, visit texastribalbuffaloproject.org.
Stephanie Aranda, Assoc. AIA, graduated with a Bachelor of Architecture from Drexel University in 2021. She is currently working as a designer in San Antonio.