Mary Annette Pember
Indian Country Today

The bison have returned at last to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in Montana.

Since time immemorial, tribes in the region of the Flathead Reservation in Montana depended upon the bison for material, cultural and ceremonial life. In the 19th century, however, Native people saw something they thought could never happen; the bison began to disappear as White settlers hunted the animals nearly to extinction.

In 1908, the federal government took lands from the tribes to create the National Bison Range, an 18,000-acre plus parcel in the middle of the Flathead Reservation. The range was created as a conservation measure to protect the bison.

The federal government erected a fence around the range, restricting the free-ranging animals from lands they had roamed on the Flathead Reservation and depriving Native people of their natural right to manage the land and the bison. Even though the U.S. Court of Claims found in 1971 that the federal takeover of the land was unconstitutional, the government refused to release their hold on the land and the bison.

On Dec. 27, however, former President Donald Trump’s decision to sign the Montana Water Rights Protection Act, righted this historic wrong; the lands and bison herd have been restored to the tribes.

Flathead reservation (Photo courtesy Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes)

The Montana Water Rights Protection Act was co-sponsored by all three of Montana’s congressional delegates and is part of an omnibus spending bill. According to the act, the tribes agreed to release claims on water resources outside the Flathead Reservation in exchange for water rights inside reservation boundaries. A clause in the act entitled “National Bison Range Restoration” restores the National Bison Range to federal trust ownership and relinquishes ownership of the bison from the United States to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

On Jan. 15, U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt signed secretary’s order 3390 directing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management to facilitate the transition of the National Bison Range land and property to the tribes and restore it to the Flathead Indian Reservation. The Bureau of Indian Affairs will formally take the land into trust for the tribes.

After years of often heated debate and negotiations with the federal government and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency that managed the range, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are now owners and managers of the site.

“The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are elated that the National Bison Range has been restored to tribal ownership,” said tribal Chairwoman Shelly R. Fyant.

“We are thrilled that this taking has finally been reconciled and that we can re-establish our relationship with the buffalo herd that we saved from extinction in the 1800s.”

The tribes’ natural resource department is working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on a memorandum of understanding to guide the transition, according to Fyant.

“People visiting the Bison Range today won’t see any change. Everything will operate as it did before; we are operating under the same management plan of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” said Robert McDonald, the tribes’ communications director.

For years, opponents to the restoration have cited concerns about the tribes’ ability and qualifications to manage the bison herd.

According to Rich Janssen, head of the tribes’ natural resource department, these concerns have often carried distinct racial overtones.

“Some opponents have said that Indians can’t properly manage the range or that we’re being treated special,” Janssen said.

Indeed, in an editorial in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle in 2020, a writer describes returning the range to tribes as a “loss of our federal inheritance.”

“We have a rich history of successful conservation with our natural resources management of elk, bighorn sheep, grizzly bear and other species,” Janssen said.

“We are one of the top tribes in the nation for managing natural resources,” he said. “We led the restoration efforts to bring this land back to its natural state.”

Depriving Native people of their natural right to manage the bison and the range has been an affront, according to Janssen.

“The bison wouldn’t be here on the range if it hadn’t been for us,” he said.

Ironically, the current bison herd at the range descended from animals originally collected by ancestors of the Pend D’Oreilles Tribe, one of three tribes on the Flathead Reservation.

“Native people have had a relationship with the buffalo for thousands of years,” said Tom McDonald of the tribes’ natural resource department. “Both the buffalo and our people were very prosperous; it wasn’t on our watch that the animals nearly became extinct.”

According to tribal oral history, it was ?Atatic’e?, Peregrine Falcon Robe, who advocated for bison conservation in the 1860s as the great herds were decimated by White settlers. In the 1870s it was his son, Little Falcon Robe, who rescued several orphan bison calves and brought them to the reservation. The current herd at the range is descended from those animals.

Unfortunately during his absence, Little Falcon Robe’s stepfather sold the herd to non-Natives Charles Allard and Michel Pablo.

Allard and Pablo, however, believed in saving the bison, eventually selling them to the Canadian government which later turned the bison over to the U.S. federal government.

“It’s incredible to see ?Atatic’e?’s foresight finally come to fruition over a hundred years later,” Jenssen said.

“The bison, like the Indians, have persevered all these years fighting for our right to exist and live even in the harshest of conditions. It’s an amazing testament to both these animals and our resilience as Native people,” he said.

Although COVID-19 is curtailing celebrations for the time being, Jenssen said the tribes will hold events honoring the return of the land and bison soon.

“There will be a celebration, I guarantee it,” Jenssen said. “This is an historic time.”

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Mary Annette Pember, a citizen of the Red Cliff Ojibwe tribe, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today.

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