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Salish and Kootenai seek to administer bison range

POLSON, Mont. - When the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes host the 13th annual Indian Land Consolidation Symposium here soon, they will have more than an academic interest in the subject. That's because the tribes are seeking control over a large and historic tract of land adjacent to their reservation - the National Bison Range.

When the symposium, hosted by the Albuquerque-based Indian Land Working Group at the tribally-owned KwaTaqNuk Resort, kicks off on Sept. 29, the tribes will be seeking support to help regain control over land that was within the boundaries of their original homelands, as marked off by the 1855 Hell Gate Treaty.

The tribes, based in Pablo, Mont., "have begun negotiations to transfer management of the National Bison Range and the Ninepipes and Pablo refuges" from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, according to the latest issue of the ILWG's Indigenous Land Reporter.

It was tribal members who began the historic herd that now roams the Bison Range, back in the 19th century, the ILWG article points out. "A few calves were brought from the plains to the Flathead Reservation in the 1870s where tribal members Charles Allard and Michel Pablo grew the small herd," ILWG said.

The Flathead herd and the establishment of the Bison Range are generally considered the key events that preserved the once-numerous United States bison, who were on the verge of extinction at the end of the 19th century.

In addition, according to the ILWG, "contrary to the Hell Gate Treaty of 1855 between the United States and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Congress expropriated 18,500 acres for the National Bison Range in 1908, more than 30 years after the tribes first began preserving them. The tribes were paid only $1.56 per acre of land."

The tribes are well suited to manage the land and the herd, the ILWG said. "The tribes' tradition of conservation through environmental stewardship is as old as the land. The tribes have a special bond with the bison and the land that once belonged to them. Under tribal management, the spirit and intent of the National Bison Range complex will truly be honored."

Theme for this year's symposium will be "Restoration within our territories." The conference will "highlight efforts being made by tribes, individuals and organizations toward restoration of lands, management and land use practices, native plant and animals' habitat, and culturally based economies."

Restoration, ILWG made clear, is more than just about land. "Federal land transfers, purchase of fee lands, consolidation of highly fractionated land areas, strategic planning, preservation of sacred sites, and reservation-wide mapping are included within the word restoration," the group said.

In addition, "restoration also refers to the re-establishment of salmon runs, and the replenishment of Native plant and animal species. In many instances it involves tribal contracting of programs and services to allow for better controls and outcomes. It means the implementation of landowner associations and the development of land curriculums for use in tribal colleges."

ILWG, started in 1991 in Pendleton, Ore., will host workshops on Sept. 29. They include "The Indian Probate Reform Act of 2003," "The Undoing of the Indian Claims Commission," "Allottee Association Initiatives," and "DOI Pilot Initiative."

General sessions begin Sept. 30 and continue on Wednesday and Thursday. Some of these will include "Recognition of Treaty Rights and Related Land Ownership," "Lands Into Trust," "Definition of Indian," and "Establishing a Land Records Program."

October 3 will feature site visits to the National Bison Range, to a Native Plants Restoration Project, and to the Title Plant established by the tribes and managed by George DuCharme.

Besides information on the conference and the Salish and Kootenai's Bison Range initiative, the ILWG's latest issue of Indigenous Lands Reporter contained an article by Idaho University School of Law professor Doug Nash on "Fee to Trust," a look at the Indian Claims Commission by Tim Coulter and Debra Schaaf of the Indian Law Resource Center, the story of the reclamation of sacred lands by the Santa Clara Pueblo of New Mexico. It also features a piece on "Restoration of a Nation" by Theresa Carmody, secretary of ILWG, and Howard Valandra, vice president of grants and programs for affiliated group the Indian Land Tenure Foundation.

That article detailed how the Klamath Tribes of Oregon and California ceded more than 20 million acres of land to the federal government in the 19th century and then were "terminated" in the 20th century.

Starting in 1980, the tribes fought for reinstatement, which was achieved in 1996 but without the return of land.

However, "although it is an uphill battle the effort to restore tribal lands continues," wrote Valandra and Carmody. "At the beginning of 2002, Interior Secretary Gale Norton extended the offer of turning over to the Klamath Tribes 696,000 acres of land in the Fremont and Winema National forests. The homeland return is part of the tribes' self-sufficiency plans. The tribe and the Bush Administration have started negotiations."