Indigenous Peoples Day: Filmmakers advocate for CSKT bison management

As part of Indigenous People’s Day, the Sierra Club hosted an online meeting on Monday night with representatives of the CSKT to talk about the tribes’ past 17 years of effort toward taking over management of the National Bison Range. (Dave Fitzpatrick/USFWS)

Montana’s tribes have long had to try to overcome racism and Hollywood stereotypes but never had much luck before the Internet came along. Now, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are able to explain their history, so more people will understand their desire to restore the National Bison Range to the Flathead Reservation.

As part of Indigenous People’s Day, the Sierra Club hosted an online meeting on Monday night with representatives of the CSKT to talk about the tribes’ past 17 years of effort toward taking over management of the National Bison Range.

“(The bison range) was part of the reservation and there was people that lived there,” said Shane Morigeau, Missoula state legislator and candidate for state auditor. “The area is important to us but also the connection to bison and the recognition that they were on the brink of extinction. From my perspective, we have a duty to protect them. As long as bison are alive and here, it’s a symbol of hope for me because I think it means they’re surviving just as we have as Indian people.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service first signed a partnership agreement with the CSKT in 2004 to manage the range but terminated the agreement two years later because of employee resistance. The CSKT challenged the termination.

After a change in USFWS staff, a new agreement was signed in 2008, which also lasted only two years. At that point, the agreement again fell apart after a federal judge ruled that the USFWS hadn’t properly justified the need for the agreement.

So once again, the USFWS and CSKT worked out an agreement in 2012, but it was never finalized because the USFWS had to complete a long overdue conservation plan for the Bison Range. The plan was finally published last December and emphasized the need for more collaboration with the tribes. Earlier, the USFWS had rejected an alternative that would have transferred management to the tribes while the USFWS retained ownership of the land.

In the meantime, the CSKT got tired of waiting.

After reading the negative public comments on the conservation plan – some labeled the tribes as lazy, incompetent, ungrateful or undeserving or made incorrect claims about what the tribes would do – CSKT leaders asked Roy Bigcrane, Salish Kootenai College media assistant, if he would help make a documentary that told the CSKT’s history with the bison to try to educate, correct falsehoods and improve understanding.

“It’s a history from our perspective, not from some outdated history book or some Hollywood movie, black-and-white John Wayne movie,” Bigcrane said. “Our history is a rich history. We get a bad reputation – killing and stealing and all these bad things you see in movies. No, we weren’t like that.”

Bigcrane should know, because it was his great, great grandfather Atatice or Peregrin Falcon Robe, who saw the bison herds were dwindling and had the idea to bring bison from the Rocky Mountain Front to the Flathead Reservation. Later, Atatice’s son Latati realized his father’s dream when he brought several bison calves over the mountains to the reservation.

The documentary, “In the Spirit of Atatice,” came out in 2018 and tells how those bison were taken from the reservation and later how their descendants returned. But sadly, they returned only because in 1912, the U.S. government took the CSKT land that became the National Bison Range. So the film documents not only the importance of the bison but also why the land is important to the Salish, Kootenai and Pend d’Oreille people.

CSKT attorney Brian Upton said the federal government took the land without the tribes’ consent and the taking was found in 1971 to be unconstitutional by the U.S. Court of Claims. In addition, the land was worth $7.4 million in 1912, but the federal government paid the tribes less than a fifth of its worth. So the court ordered the government to pay the remaining $6 million plus interest.

That is why giving the bison range back to the CSKT is not the same as other public land transfers, Upton said.

“The history of the Bison Range is different than any other federal land you’re going to come across,” Upton said. “You’re not going to find any other situation where there’s a national wildlife refuge located in a reservation that has a history like the National Bison Range.”

The Flathead Reservation has other wildlife refuges, such as the Ninepipe Wildlife Refuge along Highway 93, but Upton pointed out that the CSKT asked the federal government to designate those.

Following the release of the documentary and the final draft of the Bison Range conservation plan, the CSKT asked Montana’s Congressional delegation to add bison management to the CSKT water compact bill.

The Montana Legislature passed the CSKT water compact in 2015 to finalize the tribes’ claims to water on the reservation and on other streams around the state. Since then, it’s been waiting for Congressional approval.

So in December 2019, a new version of the bill would have the tribes trading away their water rights in other parts of the state for management of the Bison Range. The bill was heard and amended in the Senate Indian Affairs Committee this summer but hasn’t seen a vote. With the Senate absorbed in a Supreme Court nomination and disagreements over COVID stimulus bills, the bill may have to wait until the next Congress.

Upton said the tribes would foot the bill for all bison range operations so taxpayers wouldn’t have to pay the $1 million to $2 million required annually to run the refuge.

Morigeau said the tribes are willing to see their Congressional effort through so they can keep the bison range as a healthy wildlife refuge that people can visit forever.

“Other tribes are pursuing other efforts. But for us, we have a herd of bison that we have a connection to, that we traditionally went over the Divide to hunt and it was a staple in our lives,” Morigeau said. “We have a herd right now that we want to focus on and do a good job in managing. That’s the whole process that we’ve been working through.”

Bigcrane said he hopes people can at least learn the real history of the tribes and understand that the CSKT people care for wildlife and the land.

“We’re not giving up. We know there’s people listening out there,” Bigcrane said. “We know there’s people trying to help the land, because it’s not just helping the land but it’s helping each other.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.