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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

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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.

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