A life of lessons
CORSON COUNTY — At the end of a long day of working on his 20,000-acre ranch, Ron Brownotter has one more place to go before the sun sets on the wild prairie.
“I’m going to show you my favorite spot,” he said.
It’s a steep, short drive, and when Brownotter reaches the top of the hill, a breathtaking view of the Grand River valley awaits. The miles of rolling hills look untouched by civilization, and buttes can be seen far in the distance.
“This is where my grandmother’s allotment ends,” he said, pointing toward an old fence line to his right. Brownotter raises his hand and traces the horizon above the entire valley.
“And this is all mine.”
Ron Brownotter is the third generation in his family to grow up on the parcel of land 10 miles southwest of Bullhead on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
The Dawes Act of 1887 allowed American Indians to have sole ownership over land within reservations. Before, all land within a reservation belonged to tribes.
Brownotter’s grandmother purchased the first 320-acre allotment in 1917, which was passed down to his father, who passed it down to him.
Over two decades, Brownotter, 53, has taken that small piece of land, where his family raised a handful of cattle and horses, and turned it into a 20,000-acre ranch where 450 wild buffalo roam.
He guides paid hunts with his partners, taking visitors out year-round. Brownotter believes his operation, Brownotter Tatanka Hunts, is the largest Native American-owned buffalo hunting outfit in the country.
Hunters are put to the test at Brownotter’s ranch, where they must cover endless miles of hilly landscape and it might take days to find a buffalo to shoot.
The buffalo meat is processed at Family Pride Processing in Ipswich and is often donated to fundraising dinner events.
But to get to the top of his hill in Corson County, Brownotter had to battle through an impoverished childhood and addiction. He had to start from scratch several times.
* * *
Raised on the prairie grasslands in a remote area of Corson County, Brownotter lived where cows and farmland were slowly replacing native grasslands.
While many Native Americans chose to sell their allotments to settlers, Brownotter’s grandmother kept hers.
“She could sell it, lease it out, it was for her use,” Brownotter said, emphasizing his grandmother’s total control by knocking on the rustic, solid wood kitchen table.
In 1978, when Ron was a teenager, his father, Clayton Brownotter Sr., built the house Ron and his family still live in today. The Brownotters made a living leasing out to other producers and raising a small number of cattle.
One man who leased the land, so his horses could graze it, paid Clayton in horses in lieu of money.
“He told my dad to pick out 15 horses,” Brownotter recalled. “Those were quarter horses.”
Those horses would take Brownotter, his friends and brothers through every nook and cranny for miles.
Unable to afford hired help, Brownotter’s parents relied on their nine children to do the chores. But for Ron, that “work” was anything but a chore.
“No one ever had to tell me to do anything because I just loved doing it. I loved being with my parents. I was young, and I loved work,” he said.
But his parents’ love couldn’t shield Brownotter and his siblings from the throes of poverty.
“My dad just didn’t have the money to take good care of all of us. So a lot of us went to boarding schools. Four of us went to boarding school,” he said.
At age 7, Brownotter was taken away from his family and sent to St. Joseph’s Indian School in Chamberlain.
“It was brutal,” he said, his gaze hardening as he spoke shortly of the experience. “I’ll never send my kids to boarding school, ever.”
* * *
To drown out the sorrows of his impoverished surroundings, Brownotter began his descent into alcoholism as a teenager.
When he turned 18 in 1981, he enlisted in the U.S. Marines and left for boot camp at Camp Pendleton in San Diego.
Fueled by depression and a lack of direction, Brownotter’s drinking continued through bootcamp until he showed up late to present himself, disheveled and reeking of booze.
“They didn’t tolerate my drinking there,” said Brownotter, who was ordered by the military to undergo treatment.
Despite relapsing, a young Brownotter was able to stick to sobriety after realizing he didn’t have to suffer the consequences of drunken mistakes — he had a choice. He still goes to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings every month to ensure he keeps on track.
“Lucky for you guys, it’s my birthday today,” he said to his guests, explaining how on that day — July 15 — he had been 31 years sober.
* * *
In California, he met the love of his life, Carol. The couple married and eventually had four children — Carissa, 27; Celina, 24; Connie, 22 and Little Ron, 11.
Fresh out of the Marines, a disciplined Brownotter became a student at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, Calif. He majored in agribusiness.
That’s where he learned the consequences farming had on his homeland.
“I understood now the soil, wind, water erosion — how it takes 250 years to build up 1 inch of top soil. But once it’s gone, it’s gone. Once I learned that stuff, I said I’m not going to tolerate this anymore. I’m going to do what I can in my little neck of the woods here to protect what I can because it’s got to be here for the next generation,” he said.
As a full-time college student, Brownotter started his first venture in agriculture.
“I was driven. In 1994, we got our first cows. I made a loan from the (federal Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency). I was in college at the time in (California), and the land was so tied up around here,” Brownotter said.
He used the land his parents owned as pasture and leased more land nearby.
“I had no corral there, no barn there, no truck, no ATVs, zilch. Didn’t even have a home to live in, except with my mom, so that’s how I started.”
For five years during his early 30s, Brownotter would commute 1,568 miles one way, whenever his college schedule allowed, to tend to his cattle near Bullhead.
“So I was going up there every night and morning and checking cows on my own, walking those ravines on my feet, and I was so excited to have cows, my cows, that I would go all out to try to take care of them with what little I had,” he said.
All that hard work was starting to pay off, until Mother Nature intervened in winter 1997.
“The snow was so hard from the blizzard and compacted in layers that you could walk on it all the way to the top of a mobile home. Being away, coming back, trying to get resources for someone to take care of them over here while I was trying to finish my college — somehow we survived, but it was a big-time blow. I lost close to half my herd of cows,” Brownotter said.
Still, he refused to giveup.
“So that taught me a lesson. I need to do something different, I need to diversify,” he said.
* * *
After graduating from college in 1998, Brownotter was able focus more on starting a buffalo ranch.
The plan was to buy more farmland acres and convert them back to native prairie grasslands. He started by buying his grandmother’s land, which had been leased out for farming for more than 30 years.
He then put in a request with the Farm Service Agency to acquire financing to kickstart the business. Brownotter began fencing the leased land before the Farm Service Agency made a decision on his proposal.
“I’m scavenging, basically, to find poles. I found this, I found that, and I started building that fence. I had no money to pay people. I practically had to beg people, so the workforce was slim to nothing. A lot of the time it was just me doing the work, but I was young. I was 30 years old; it didn’t bother me at all to work. So I kept building on the weekends,” he said.
After the fence was built, his application was denied. Unable to make payments, he had to forfeit his land leases.
“I had to go back and pull all that fence out myself, all those poles, all the wire,” he said. “It was like a punch in the gut.
“Nothing really took off. Then one day, me and Carol were going to Bullhead, and it was quiet, we were just enjoying each other’s company. Then, out of the blue, she looks and me and says, ‘Let’s raise buffalo.’ Up to that point, with me doing all this other stuff, she wasn’t convinced. But her saying that at that very moment, ‘Let’s raise buffalo,’ that was it.”
* * *
Vivid details in a dream also helped give Brownotter direction.
“I was standing in front of my Catholic church in Bullhead, and it was a bright day just like it is today, and these buffalo were coming in from the east running between me and the church at full speed. I could hear their feet, their breathing. I could see the dust, and they just kept going east to west in front of me and the Catholic church,” he said.
“I didn’t understand that dream then, but I do today. That was setting everything in motion, that God is in charge.”
In 2001, Brownotter purchased his first buffaloes — six yearling heifers — in Custer.
That day, he saw a sign that affirmed to him that he was on the right path.
“When we bought them that day and we were driving out of Custer, there was a great big golden eagle flying down right in front of us, like 10, 15 feet. It was a good feeling because my Indian name is Eagle Wing. My parents named me Eagle Wing, and I never understood that name until the last few years,” Brownotter said.
“And it was taken out of the Bible. They talk about eagle’s wings. They’re always seeking the Lord, and they’re strong. That’s how they got my name,” he said.
* * *
‘Chokecherries make the best jam,” Tom Aman said while pointing to a wild chokecherry bush while Brownotter drives up a hill.
Brownotter stops his truck near a ridge so he and Aman can sample the tart fruit.
The two men are partners and friends. They lead their guests around the plains, telling stories and looking for buffalo.
Aman met Brownotter in 2003, when Aman was national chairman of Sitting Bull College in Mobridge. Brownotter gave a presentation to the college’s board members about how the college could own a herd of buffalo to help fund a new $20 million building on campus. The board members weren’t impressed, but Aman and his associate, Norg Sanderson, were. The three visited after the meeting, Brownotter telling the two Aberdeen men about his small herd of buffalo.
After a few more discussions, Brownotter took Aman and Sanderson on a tour of his property and talked about the history of the area. They then sat down to talk business. That’s when Sanderson told Brownotter that he and Aman wanted to invest in the ranch and that money to procure buffalo or land was not an issue.
Aman and Sanderson gave Brownotter a $500,000 cashier’s check. Eventually, there was a second check for the same amount.
Aman said he and Sanderson started as “angel investors.” But when Brownotter hit a rough financial stretch, Aman became a partner.
Brownotter is now paying Aman back.
“Eventually, he’ll buy me out and own the entire thing,” Aman said, expressing respect for Brownotter’s work ethic.
“I was born out there in Standing Rock in McLaughlin, and then after I graduated from the University of South Dakota School of Business, I came back to Mobridge …” Aman said. “And I’ve always had a passion for economic development where there are no jobs. That particular county — Corson County — they’re among the top 10 highest-poverty in the UnitedStates.
“What Ron is doing is a private business. Getting started was very difficult. I turned into a partner rather than a banker in order to aid with my service. Little by little, through his passion, hard work and determination to succeed, he’s able to be where he is today, where he now owns 61 percent of the ranch with zero indebtedness,” Aman said.
* * *
While a good chunk of Brownotter’s herd came from Custer, he has some buffalo whose ancestors are movie stars. In 1924, several buffalo were transported to Catalina Island in California as part of a western film set.
As the herd grew to more than 600 buffalo over 75 years, Brownotter said a group called the Catalina Island Conservancy advertised to relocate portions of the herd to its native habitat.
Buffalo and other species introduced to the island were depleting the native vegetation and were not receiving adequate the nutritional value due to droughts.
The advertisement said the buffalo were free and gave Judy Wood’s phone number as a contact.
Brownotter called Wood and was asked how many buffalo he wanted.
“I would’ve been happy with one or two, but I just threw a number out there and said ‘I’ll take 50,’” Brownotter said.
He didn’t hear back from Wood for months until she called with big news.
“She said 51 buffalo were on their way and they’d be there soon,” he said.
Somehow, Brownotter, with the help from his wife and daughters, was able to construct a buffalo fence. They finished right before Woods’ called.
That night, the 51 buffalo stepped off a trailer and into Brownotter’s pastures, returning to their native homeland.
In 2004, another 200 Catalina buffalo joined Brownotter’s herd.
It’s a lucrative business that encompasses all of Brownotter’s longterm goals, an accomplishment that has left Aman in awe.
“Ron has gotten to the point where he and Carol, in the spring, they’ll be able to build a house and work it out privately with the bank as part of the ranch,” Aman said.
The new house will replace the family’s existing cozy house, which has been plenty full in recent years.
Brownotter has been working on a fencing project for the past two years, relying on 20 or so workers for help. His wife cooked breakfast, lunch and often dinner for the workers. The family’s living room served as a crowded dining hall, people sitting elbow to elbow in cramped quarters.
Like everything else, Brownotter made it work, and it’s paying off.
With the fence work done, Brownotter said there are no plans to do more fencing or add more buffalo.
He said it will be awhile before he retires, especially since his daughter Connie has a few years left at Montana State University before she earns her bachelor’s degree in rangeland ecology.
“That’s the plan,” Brownotter said when asked if Connie will take over the ranch.
But he’s not finished just yet.
“I’ve got a few years left,” he said.
Follow @smarvel_AANon Twitter.