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Sarah Mosquera
Montana Free Press

The sound of drumming filled the rolling hills of the National Bison Range. Members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes and neighbors gathered under a large tent to sing and dance in celebration of a historic event: the tribes’ reclamation of management of the Bison Range after more than a century of federal management and nearly two decades of negotiations.

“This all dates back to the treaty of 1855, when that agreement wasn’t honored and this land was taken by the government,” said Stephanie Gillin, wildlife biologist for the CSKT Natural Resources Department.

Without tribal consent, the federal government established the National Bison Range in 1908 as a 19,000-acre preserve in the middle of the Flathead Indian Reservation. Tribal members were excluded from bison management despite their involvement in the herd’s creation.

According to the CSKT-produced film “In the Spirit of Atatice, in the 1870s a man named Atatice noticed that the number of bison was decreasing in the Flathead Valley, and he hoped to begin a herd on tribal land. Though Atatice’s vision did not come to fruition, his son Latati later carried on his father’s work. While on a bison hunt on the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains, Latati decided to lead a herd of orphaned calves over the range and back to the Flathead Reservation. The animals flourished under his care and became the first managed bison herd in the Flathead Valley.

“Today we are here to honor the vision, the foresight, the wisdom, the courage of your ancestors, and in particular Atatice and his son Latati,” Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras told celebrants on Saturday.

CSKT Tribal Chairman Tom McDonald said the restoration of the Bison Range to tribal control is about more than just land. By righting a long-standing wrong, he said, it helps foster trust and encourages collaboration between tribal nations and government agencies, restoring honor to once-broken treaties and allowing tribes to steward the land as they had for thousands of years.

“It’s a restoration of a piece that was missing. It represents a gift of what we may care for to protect and have something for future generations,” McDonald said.

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The three-day celebration began with a powwow on Friday and ended with half-price entry to the Bison Range on Sunday. The event featured appearances by U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland. On Saturday, Haaland spoke before a crowd at Salish Kootenai College in Pablo to honor the resilience of tribal nations.

“With the loss of tribal homelands and the depletion of the buffalo herds, the plains tribes lost traditional connections with this beautiful animal. But despite that terrible tragedy and loss, we are still here. You are still here. And that is something to celebrate,” Haaland said.

After years of failed negotiations, the transfer was accomplished through enactment of the Montana Water Rights Protection Act of 2020, returning the Bison Range to CSKT management. The transfer became official on Jan. 2, 2022.

“The return of the Bison Range to these tribes is a triumph and a testament to what can happen when we collaboratively work together to restore balance to ecosystems that were injured by greed and disrespect,” Haaland said.

These photos offer viewers a brief glimpse into the weekend’s emotional celebration. From heartfelt speeches to rambunctious Native games, the event was full of life, joy and color. On Friday, an announcer repeatedly proclaimed, “It’s a good day to be Indian.” Every elder who spoke reiterated the important role played by bison in Native culture, including a deep spiritual connection that makes the management transfer more than a matter of legal logistics. At the announcer’s urging, non-tribal members flooded the dance floor during Friday’s powwow, dancing alongside tribal members in full regalia, embracing a culture that isn’t their own, and celebrating a victory they clearly regarded as shared. 

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This article was originally published in the Montana Free Press