How wild Yellowstone bison finally came to Montana's Fort Peck Reservation


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During his 2004 gubernatorial campaign, Schweitzer promised to build more tolerance for bison in Montana. He's failed on numerous occasions, including in his effort to establish genetically pure herds on state land. But today is not necessarily about years-old promises. In a way, it's more about coming through for Indian Country, he says. "In the Indian world, everything is a circle. It's a circle of life. Look at a tribal council chambers and it's in a circle. Thinking is done in a circular way. There's a rhythm to that... To return these genetically pure bison to this place is, in a way, completing the circle of life."

Tribal Councilman Tom Christian directs the 40 or so folks who made the trek to the bison paddock to gather around a buffalo robe near the southeast corner of the fence. He sits in a circle with Schweitzer, Gray Hawk, tribal wildlife manager Robert Magnan and a dozen others. One by one, they cleanse their faces and chests with sage smoke. Christian packs a tribal pipe with tobacco and begins a Sioux prayer. His voice is drowned out by a half-circle of round drummers. Their drumming and singing drifts over the bison enclosure, driving the animals to the far corner.

A drum circle performs the Flag Song at Fort Peck Community College. - PHOTO BY ALEX SAKARIASSEN

Iris Grey Bull stands near the fence solemnly, casting her eyes now and then to the bison. Back at the college, she'd been one of the few to raise her hand with a comment. She was glad to see the bison come home. It's part of a healing process for the tribe, she said. Now they can grow stronger. "If any of you have ever looked at a map, the water and the rivers on this reservation form buffalo," she said. "The big bull is facing east, and there are four cow buffalo facing west." Some people pulled a rock out of the ground recently. "It was shaped like a buffalo."

After the pipe ceremony, I ask former Tribal Council Vice Chairwoman Roxann Smith what's next. The bison are here, and if all goes according to plan, half of them will be bound for a new home on Fort Belknap as early as this summer. Tribal members will be allowed to hunt some of them. The animals will provide ceremonial supplies, healthy meat for local schools, even a chance to boost tourism in a part of the state seldom visited by anyone but Bakken oil workers and truckers on the Hi-Line.

"I just hope we have more opportunities to bring our young people out here," Smith says. The butchering of bison is one of the most important ceremonies her people have. In Poplar, students from Frazier were asking if they'd have an opportunity to participate in that ceremony. Smith says she sees the bison as one part of a larger effort to preserve the fading parts of Native American culture. "You heard it from the mouths of babes," she says. "They want to learn about these traditions... Now our children are going to be able to take part."

Tom Christian prepares for the pipe ceremony. - PHOTO BY ALEX SAKARIASSEN

Charles Headdress, a member of the Fort Peck Tribal Executive Board, says he wishes his grandfather were alive to see this day. His grandfather always wanted to see bison restored to the reservation. "It's unbelievable to me, being a member of the Assiniboine tribe. These animals roamed this area back when my ancestors were great warriors. We're still great warriors now, but the bison are finally back."

The tribal shuttles crawl back up the hill. Schweitzer's disappeared. So have the representatives from the Department of the Interior. Only a scattering of folks from the National Wildlife Federation and Defenders of Wildlife remain, their camera crews snapping a few last shots before packing up.

I take a last look at the bison. They're still grouped at the far end of their paddock, startled by the sound of a dozen or more engines straining up the dirt road. A few younger bison chase one another around the hay that Gray Hawk dropped this morning. Calving season is approaching. In three months, the herd will be grazing over the surrounding hills. By then, the smell of bison will be thick on the land.


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