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Down to the bones

A historic discovery on the Blackfeet Reservation runs the risk of being lost amid another showdown with the federal government



Twelve men wearing sweatshirts, thermals and knit caps sit at the edge of a freshly unearthed pile of bison bones on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. It’s a cold October afternoon and there’s work to do, but first things first. They need to pray.

“We’ll pray for the people and the buffalo spirit that’s been so good to us for thousands of years,” says Blackfeet Tribal Preservation Officer John Murray. “We’ll pray with this tobacco.”

After completing the prayer, Murray and the other men place small wads of tobacco atop the hundreds of bones protruding from the earth and next to a small hunk of coal burning sweetgrass. In July, contractors working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs discovered the bones while excavating a water line for a new $22 million dormitory for the BIA-operated Cut Bank Creek Boarding School. The bones were a surprise, leaving Murray and his crew to conduct an emergency excavation.

“This is a salvage operation,” he says.

Missoula Independent news
  • Cathrine L. Walters

Among the discoveries at the site are 40 intact bison skulls, scapulas, ribs and jawbones complete with massive incisors. Beads, arrowheads and stone tools are plentiful, too, including scrapers used to remove fur from hides. Among the most important finds was an iniskim, which the Blackfeet traditionally used as a prayer stone to aid in a bountiful bison hunt.

All together, the bones and artifacts constitute the remains of a bison processing operation that archaeologists believe dates back approximately 1,500 years. Murray’s Tribal Preservation Office crew also discovered a shell casing manufactured in 1870, roughly 13 years before the Northern Plains bison were nearly killed off.

Archaeologists laud the discovery of the site for providing invaluable insights into how the Blackfeet people lived prior to the arrival of non-Native settlers.

“When you see it in the large picture, it’s awesome, in the literal sense of the word,” says María Nieves Zedeño, an archaeologist from the University of Arizona Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology and the first to identify the site as a processing operation.

But despite the significance of the discovery, its future remains in jeopardy. The BIA has not called off the dormitory project, as the Blackfeet have requested. The roughly $130,000 allocated by the bureau to conduct what Murray calls “reactive archaeology” has also run out.

In an effort to preserve the artifacts and learn as much as possible about how their ancestors lived, Murray’s all-Blackfeet crew of resource field technicians is volunteering its time to excavate the site as quickly as possible. They’re unsure when—or even if—time will run out because the BIA has yet to say how it intends to proceed. But based on the tribe’s long-strained relationship with the federal government, Murray says he has little faith that the BIA will help him save this piece of Blackfeet history.

“I don’t trust them,” he says. “They’ve been running us over for a long time.”

On July 8, Virgil “Puggy” Edwards hustled down to the Cut Bank Creek Boarding School after the Blackfeet Agency Superintendent alerted the Tribal Preservation Office that BIA contractors had found something. Edwards, a cultural resource field technician who works with Murray, estimates that the water line excavation unearthed 200 feet of bone-laden soil before contractors notified the tribe’s superintendent. “I found bone material all along the water line,” Edwards says.

On Sept. 17, the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council declared the processing site a traditional cultural property and voted to have the BIA shut down dormitory construction. The Blackfeet say that the BIA broke ground without sufficiently consulting tribal officials. They further allege that the bureau didn’t thoroughly research the Cut Bank site’s cultural significance, as mandated by the National Historic Preservation Act.

Missoula Independent news
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • “When you see it in the large picture, it’s awesome, in the literal sense of the word.” —María Nieves Zedeño, archaeologist

“What they’re saying, in a sense, is that they don’t have to follow federal law,” Murray says.

In response to those claims, the BIA has produced a series of letters and emails sent during a two-year period prior to breaking ground on the dormitory. In one letter dated April 25, 2011, BIA Office of Facilities Management and Construction Deputy Director Emerson Eskeets informs the tribe that it is poised to investigate the potential impacts of a new dormitory “in accordance with all applicable federal, state and local codes.”

Nearly a year later, on March 23, 2012, another letter provided by the BIA from Eskeets asks the Blackfeet if the tribe wants to hire contractors to construct the new dormitory or leave that responsibility to the Office of Facilities Management.

The bureau produced two additional letters discussing the historic relevance of two buildings associated with the boarding school.

To date, however, the bureau has not provided the Tribal Preservation Office or the Independent any documentation indicating that it researched the area’s cultural history.

Murray and the archaeologists and anthropologists interviewed by the Independent say that had the BIA researched Cut Bank Creek, it would have found that in 1953 former Museum of the Plains Indian Curator Thomas Kehoe excavated what’s called the Boarding School Bison Drive Site, roughly 75 yards from the recently discovered processing area. During that dig, Kehoe unearthed bones and tools that archaeologists estimate were used to hunt and process bison as many as 1,200 years ago.

University of Calgary archaeologist and professor emeritus Brian “Barney” Reeves notes that because the drive site marked the first major buffalo jump excavation of its kind in the Northwestern Plains, scientists commonly used it as a reference point. “It was a very key site for everybody to understand bison drives,” he says.

When the Independent asked the BIA if it intends to go forward with the project, despite the Tribal Business Council’s September decision to halt construction, bureau spokesperson Nedra Darling said in an emailed statement, “We have not had discussions with the Tribe regarding the completion of the dormitory project.”

When responding to allegations that the bureau didn’t comply with federal law prior to breaking ground, Darling said, “We met with the Tribe and understand the Tribe’s concerns.”

There’s a 360-degree view from the bluff above Cut Bank Creek, where for hundreds of years Blackfeet hunters drove bison off of a small cliff and into a cottonwood corral. Before guns arrived in the West, hunters used the corral to corner the animals and better ensure that their arrows would hit their mark.

The bison hunt was a massive communal undertaking. Bison stand as tall as 6-and-a-half feet and weigh up to 1,800 pounds, meaning that wrangling a bison herd without horses and guns required skill, agility and a deep understanding of the animal’s behavior.

The Blackfeet first erected rock cairns in a large V-shape on the prairie, forming “drive lanes” above the cliff. “Buffalo runners,” who were typically young men, masked their scent with sage and animal fat to fool the bison’s keen olfactory senses, and lured the bison toward the cliff using a variety of ploys. One trick, as Jack Brink writes in his book, Imagining Head-Smashed-In, was to don buffalo calfskin and imitate the sound of a calf’s “plaintive bleating.”

Missoula Independent news
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Archaeologists at the Cut Bank Creek site found an iniskim, which the Blackfeet traditionally used as a prayer stone to aid in a bountiful bison hunt.

The mournful sound piqued the maternal instincts of female bison and prompted them to investigate. In doing so, as Brink writes, the mother buffalo would lead the herd into the “jaws of the trap.”

The Blackfeet term for such a hunt is “pishkun.” It loosely means “deep blood kettle.”

For thousands of years, buffalo hunts sustained the Blackfeet. Prior to the arrival of white settlers, nearly every aspect of tribal life depended on bison. The animal’s brain matter was used to tan buffalo hides, which were transformed into robes and teepees. Sinew was used for sewing; bones as tools.

In 1500, the U.S. government estimates that roughly 45 million bison inhabited North America. With new non-Native arrivals, however, came an influx of cattle and horses, which competed with bison for valuable grazing land. New railroads further disrupted the environment. Hunters and traders eager to profit used those railroads to ship bison hides east, where they were transformed into coats, blankets and machine belts.

The federal government never officially sanctioned a full-fledged extermination of bison. But high-ranking officials espoused it as a way to force the last Native American holdouts onto reservation lands. In doing so, they provided tacit approval of an all-out war against the animals.

“The buffalo are disappearing rapidly, but not faster than I desire,” U.S. Interior Secretary Columbus Delano told Congress in 1874. “I regard the destruction of such game as Indians subsist upon as facilitating the policy of the government, of destroying their hunting habits, coercing them on reservations, and compelling them to begin to adopt the habits of civilization.”

By 1883, the buffalo were nearly extinct and the Blackfeet had been confined to their reservation in northern Montana. Though allocated rations, the tribe rarely had enough to sustain themselves. The problem was further exacerbated by early season storms, which hindered deliveries to the reservation. That year, bacon arrived in Browning covered with maggots. It’s estimated that 600 Blackfeet died in 1883, during what’s referred to as the “Starvation Winter.”

Murray says that the survivors of his great grandmother’s generation didn’t talk much about the hunger. They did say, however, that the government didn’t accurately tally the deaths.

“The way the old people say,” Murray recalls, “2,600 people starved to death.”

At 66, Murray still walks with a swagger. He wears a black leather jacket and Wranglers. His long hair pokes out from underneath a baseball cap and a pack of Marlboro Reds sticks out of his jacket pocket.

Murray earned a master’s degree in education from Montana State University and his diverse resume includes teaching at the Blackfeet Community College and a four-year stint as superintendent of the elite Blackfeet firefighting crew, the Chief Mountain Hot Shots. For the past nine years, he’s worked as the tribe’s preservation officer.

Missoula Independent news
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • “This right here is a slap in the face. They’re still trying to civilize us.”—Blackfeet Tribal Preservation Officer John Murray

Murray’s first experience with the BIA came in 1956, when he was sent to live at the bureau-run Cut Bank Boarding School. He still remembers the day the school administrator arrived at his family’s two-room home to speak with his grandmother, who was then caring for him. Murray peered through the doorway, eavesdropping.

“I could see a leg sticking out, high-heeled, nylons,” he recalls. “All I can remember of that conversation is that I should be at the boarding school because they had modern playgrounds.”

Like dozens of other BIA-operated boarding schools, the one at Cut Bank Creek was guided by directives set by Col. Richard H. Pratt, who, as founder of the nation’s first Indian boarding school, famously espoused killing the Indian to cultivate the man.

“A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres,” Pratt told the 19th annual Conference on Charities and Correction in 1882. “In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”

Murray says that when he arrived at the Cut Bank Creek Boarding School at 10 years old, Pratt’s directive remained in effect. Children had their long hair forcibly cut. Murray’s sister’s locks were used to adorn a marionette. Blackfeet language and religion were forbidden. Violations drew discipline, including being forced to kneel on a broom handle for hours at a time.

Murray recalls sitting on the swings inside the playground that the female administrator used to lure him to Cut Bank Creek, and realizing how different the school was from where he came from.

Murray couldn’t help thinking about the BIA’s modern playground pitch in July, when members of the bureau’s Office of Facilities Management and Construction arrived in Browning to celebrate a groundbreaking ceremony for the new dorm.

“The guy from OFMC, he gets up there and says, ‘We’re going to have a modern dormitory with modern technology,’ and just like that,” Murray snaps his fingers, “that conversation came back—modern playgrounds.”

Today, chain-link fencing surrounds the Cut Bank Creek bison-processing site. To enter, one must pass an armed Blackfeet Security officer.

Judging by what archaeologist María Zedeño calls the “sea of thousands of bones” uncovered so far at the Cut Bank complex, she says that it was likely part of a sizeable trade operation. The fact that bone collectors haven’t raided the Cut Bank site makes it especially rare.

During the late 1800s, bison bones, which were used in sugar processing, became a commodity. In 1884, they sold for roughly $10 a ton. During the 20th century, the phosphorous-rich bones became increasingly in demand. Used in fertilizer and also in explosives, eastern manufacturers eagerly purchased them from industrious western settlers.

Missoula Independent news
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Virgil “Puggy” Edwards was the first field technician on the scene of the bison processing site.

Zedeño says that over the years, bone collectors have mined many of Montana’s best-known bison jump sites. That’s the case with what’s now called the First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park near Great Falls and likely also the Kutoyis Bison Kill Site on the Blackfeet Reservation, which Zedeño helped to excavate with Murray’s office.

While opportunists and businesspeople have significantly impacted sites like the First Peoples Buffalo Jump, the Cut Bank site remains largely intact. “In the recent excavation of the boarding school,” Zedeño says, “they have found exactly what it should be … That is something that needs to be recorded.”

Brian Reeves from the University of Calgary adds that because the most valuable artifacts discovered by Thomas Kehoe during the 1953 excavation have gone missing, extra attention should be taken to preserve this summer’s discovery.

“I hope that they would require whoever’s going to do this to make sure that an equivalent collection is acquired through excavation, to replace what has been lost,” Reeves says.

Reeves led the excavation of Canada’s Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, which the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization designated in 1981 as a World Heritage Site, a distinction shared by the Egyptian pyramids, Stonehenge and the Galapagos Islands.

It was during the course of conducting a study for the Kainai Nation in Alberta, a Blackfeet sister tribe, that Reeves learned the Kehoe artifacts had disappeared. Thomas Kehoe’s ex-wife, Alice, told him that she had delivered the artifacts to the BIA office in Browning.

But when Reeves arrived at the BIA office, all that remained were a few bone tools in a box in an unsecured storeroom. “All the artifacts that were there were the bone tools,” he says. “But all of the arrowheads and the stone tools of particular interest to me—to anybody—were not there.”

When contacted by the Independent, Alice Kehoe, now 79, reiterated what she told Reeves: She delivered the artifacts to the BIA’s Ramona Hall. “I turned them over on behalf of Tom Kehoe,” Alice Kehoe says.

Hall denies receiving the delivery. “I never did have any artifacts at the agency,” she says.

Reeves, who built his career working to preserve indigenous history, has a tough time containing his frustration when discussing his interaction with the BIA. The way the bureau has handled the Cut Bank Creek discoveries reminds him of the loss of the Kehoe artifacts.

“This is typical,” he says.

Blackfeet Tribal Preservation crewmember Steve LaForge removes the caramel-colored iniskim delicately from its red pouch. The Blackfeet say because they are the only tribe to use the iniskim, finding the fossil here proves that they’ve lived on this land since time immemorial. Every morning, the crew says a prayer with the artifact and ask that their history be protected.

As part of the effort to preserve what remains of Blackfeet culture, the Tribal Business Council has asked the BIA to reconsider where it places the new dormitory. “We’ve got land available, infrastructure, everything,” says council member Roger “Sassy” Running Crane. “It’s just a matter of them saying, ‘Hey okay, let’s sit down at the table, let’s see what we can do ...”

Missoula Independent news
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • The Boarding School Bison Drive Site is where Blackfeet used to direct animals off a small cliff and into a cottonwood corral.

Running Crane says the tribe isn’t looking for a fight, but they are prepared for one. The Blackfeet are aware of multiple legal precedents in their favor. When it comes to projects that stand to impact cultural resources, the federal government must reach a high bar when consulting with tribal governments.

In one example, the Pueblo of Sandia in argued that the government overlooked cultural properties in New Mexico’s Las Huertas Canyon, where the Forest Service was in the process of reconstructing a road and expanding recreational amenities such as picnic areas and sanitary facilities. That 1995 case, Pueblo of Sandia v. the U.S. Forest Service, resulted in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals deciding that the Forest Service was required under the National Historic Preservation Act to “take into account the effect of [any] undertaking on any district site, building, structure or object that is included in or eligible for inclusion in the National Register.”

The Sandia had conducted religious ceremonies in the canyon, as well as gathered herbs and plants to use in traditional healing practices. The Forest Service argued that it attempted to consult with the Sandia, mailing letters to the tribe and individuals who were known to be familiar with the area’s historic significance. Despite those efforts, the court found the government’s level of work depends on the likelihood that a historical landmark might exist. The 10th circuit opined “that the Forest Service did not make a reasonable effort to identify historic properties.”

Blackfeet officials say the BIA conducted even less outreach prior to embarking on the Cut Bank dormitory project than the Forest Service did in the Sandia case. They say the failure leaves them well positioned to sue if negotiations fall apart.

“If push comes to shove,” Running Crane says, “you betcha we’re going to litigate.”

To compensate for damage done during the water line excavation, Murray is asking the bureau to fund a new Blackfeet cultural center and also a study of the surrounding cultural landscape. Murray’s dream is to incorporate the findings into an educational curriculum, one wholly different from the schooling that he received.

He notes that while he was taught to feel ashamed about his roots, kids today are putting their Blackfeet names on their cars and license plates. The demonstrations leave Murray optimistic that there’s a cultural renaissance underway among Blackfeet youth. “Our culture is fractured,” he says, “but it’s still intact.”

Documenting the ingenuity and self-sufficiency employed by Blackfeet would fuel that resurgence, Murray says. That’s why he can’t help but feel protective as he looks out over the stalled dormitory project and the white foundation footings that rise up from the excavated earth.

“This right here is a slap in the face,” Murray says. “They’re still trying to civilize us.”


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