MOIESE — The sound of drumming filled the rolling hills of the National Bison Range. Members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes and neighbors gathered under a large tent to sing and dance in celebration of a historic event: the tribes’ reclamation of management of the Bison Range after more than a century of federal management and nearly two decades of negotiations.

“This all dates back to the treaty of 1855, when that agreement wasn’t honored and this land was taken by the government,” said Stephanie Gillin, wildlife biologist for the CSKT Natural Resources Department.  

Without tribal consent, the federal government established the National Bison Range in 1908 as a 19,000-acre preserve in the middle of the Flathead Indian Reservation. Tribal members were excluded from bison management despite their involvement in the herd’s creation. 

According to the CSKT-produced film “In the Spirit of Atatice, in the 1870s a man named Atatice noticed that the number of bison was decreasing in the Flathead Valley, and he hoped to begin a herd on tribal land. Though Atatice’s vision did not come to fruition, his son Latati later carried on his father’s work. While on a bison hunt on the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains, Latati decided to lead a herd of orphaned calves over the range and back to the Flathead Reservation. The animals flourished under his care and became the first managed bison herd in the Flathead Valley. 

“Today we are here to honor the vision, the foresight, the wisdom, the courage of your ancestors, and in particular Atatice and his son Latati,” Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras told celebrants on Saturday.

“The return of the Bison Range to these tribes is a triumph and a testament to what can happen when we collaboratively work together to restore balance to ecosystems that were injured by greed and disrespect.”

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland

CSKT Tribal Chairman Tom McDonald said the restoration of the Bison Range to tribal control is about more than just land. By righting a long-standing wrong, he said, it helps foster trust and encourages collaboration between tribal nations and government agencies, restoring honor to once-broken treaties and allowing tribes to steward the land as they had for thousands of years. 

“It’s a restoration of a piece that was missing. It represents a gift of what we may care for to protect and have something for future generations,” McDonald said.

The three-day celebration began with a powwow on Friday and ended with half-price entry to the Bison Range on Sunday. The event featured appearances by U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland. On Saturday, Haaland spoke before a crowd at Salish Kootenai College in Pablo to honor the resilience of tribal nations. 

“With the loss of tribal homelands and the depletion of the buffalo herds, the plains tribes lost traditional connections with this beautiful animal. But despite that terrible tragedy and loss, we are still here. You are still here. And that is something to celebrate,” Haaland said.

After years of failed negotiations, the transfer was accomplished through enactment of the Montana Water Rights Protection Act of 2020, returning the Bison Range to CSKT management. The transfer became official on Jan. 2, 2022. 

“The return of the Bison Range to these tribes is a triumph and a testament to what can happen when we collaboratively work together to restore balance to ecosystems that were injured by greed and disrespect,” Haaland said. 

The following photos offer viewers a brief glimpse into the weekend’s emotional celebration. From heartfelt speeches to rambunctious Native games, the event was full of life, joy and color. On Friday, an announcer repeatedly proclaimed, “It’s a good day to be Indian.” Every elder who spoke reiterated the important role played by bison in Native culture, including a deep spiritual connection that makes the management transfer more than a matter of legal logistics. At the announcer’s urging, non-tribal members flooded the dance floor during Friday’s powwow, dancing alongside tribal members in full regalia, embracing a culture that isn’t their own, and celebrating a victory they clearly regarded as shared. 

Salish Pend d’Oreille elder Stephen Small Salmon prepares to lead dancers into the powwow for the first dance in celebration of the Bison Range transfer on Friday, May 20, in Moiese. During the celebration, Small Salmon spoke passionately about the return of the Bison Range to tribal control and expressed hope that one day the tribes would also get Big Medicine back. Big Medicine was a rare white calf born on the Bison Range in 1933. According to tribal members, his birth heightened the CSKT people’s spiritual connection with bison. Big Medicine died in 1959 and his taxidermied body is currently at the Montana Historical Society Museum in Helena. “He belongs here with us,” Small Salmon said. Credit: Sarah Mosquera / MTFP

The visitor center at the Bison Range fielded a steady stream of visitors throughout the weekend. Inside, a new exhibit created by wildlife biologist Stephanie Gillin adorns the walls. “I am very proud to carry on the work of our ancestors and be a voice for our people,” Gillin said. “And I am so honored to be able to display our story.” The exhibit traces the history of the Bison Range, the Salish and Kootenai people, and their relationship to bison. Credit: Sarah Mosquera / MTFP

Salish elder Johnny Arlee bows his head in prayer during the celebration of the Bison Range transfer on Friday, May 20. Arlee led multiple prayers and speeches throughout the weekend, and told visitors about praying for the return of the Bison Range to tribal ownership. “When I was in Ravalli coming over the hill, I seen buffalo there and I sang that song, the buffalo calling song,” Arlee said. “And in my heart I was praying for our people and all the good we could do if we got that land back. Now I think, man, that song is powerful.” Credit: Sarah Mosquera / MTFP

Bison relax in the grass above the meandering road on the west side of the Bison Range. The National Bison Range was created in 1908 on CSKT land without tribal consent. After the Montana Water Rights Protection Act of 2020 was enacted, the Bison Range returned to tribal management. The tribes officially took over on Jan. 2, 2022. “This last year, we co-managed the Bison Range with federal employees,” said Stephanie Gillin, wildlife biologist for the CSKT Natural Resources Department. “The relationship is very supportive.” Credit: Sarah Mosquera / MTFP

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, accepts a gift from CSKT tribal member Jim Malatare during the celebration of the Bison Range transfer on Friday in Moiese. “Righting a historical wrong is an important reason to celebrate,” Tester said. Tester and Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines were instrumental in the U.S. Senate’s passage of the Montana Water Rights Protection Act in 2020, which codified the change in Bison Range management. Credit: Sarah Mosquera / MTFP

Dancers fill the floor during the powwow at Friday’s celebration. The announcer repeatedly urged guests to join dancers on the dance floor, regardless of whether they were wearing regalia. Adults and children circled the floor and stepped in rhythm to the drumbeats. Credit: Sarah Mosquera / MTFP

Children run toward the goal during a game of double ball at Friday’s celebration. The game requires players to use sticks to pick up the double ball, which is two balls made of hide stuffed with buffalo hair and connected by fabric. Once a player has the double ball on their stick, they evade other players to run down the field to their goal and try to fling the balls over a bar. CSKT tribal member Frank Old Horn said there are many different origin stories about the game, but many say warriors used to play double ball to prepare for battle. According to Old Horn, the original fields were up to two miles long, which rewarded endurance, coordination and agility. Credit: Sarah Mosquera / MTFP

Dancers touch elbows during a variation of the round dance at Friday’s powwow to celebrate the transfer of the Bison Range to tribal control. According to the Salish and Kootenai College website, the round dance traditionally consists of drummers singing in the center while dancers move in a circular motion around the floor. Dancers will often join hands while dancing, but during Friday’s celebration, in an apparent nod to COVID-19 protocols, dancers opted to touch elbows instead. Credit: Sarah Mosquera / MTFP

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland smiles after receiving a blanket as a gift from Polson middle-schoolers during a ceremony at Salish Kootenai College in Pablo on Saturday, May 21. During an emotional speech, Haaland said, “When our wildlife management and conservation efforts are guided by Indigenous knowledge, developed over millennia, we all succeed.” Haaland spent the day with CSKT tribal members, touring the Flathead Indian Reservation and meeting elders before speaking in the college’s crowded gymnasium. Credit: Sarah Mosquera / MTFP

Jingle dress dancers move across the dance floor during Friday’s powwow celebrating the transfer of the Bison Range. Jingle dancer Aspen Decker, 29, wearing yellow at right, said she has been dancing off and on throughout her life. According to CSKT tribal members, jingle dress dances are traditionally healing dances. Credit: Sarah Mosquera / MTFP

latest stories

What does Montana’s ‘born-alive’ referendum have to do with abortion?

When voters review their ballots in November, the only mention of abortion they see will be in the eye-catching language of LR-131, a referendum on the Montana Born-Alive Infant Protection Act. But the measure’s actual link to abortion, according to medical professionals organizing against the referendum, is divorced from medical fact.

The divergent energy visions of Montana’s U.S. House candidates

U.S. House candidates Ryan Zinke and Monica Tranel have both worked on energy issues on public and private payrolls. Zinke, a Republican, underscores the importance of “American energy independence” and emphasizes the role of fossil fuels in that vision. Tranel, his Democrat challenger, prioritizes a transition to clean energy that “has to start quickly and…

Sarah Mosquera

Sarah Mosquera is a freelance photojournalist based in Missoula. She is originally from Colorado and recently graduated from the University of Montana with a Masters degree in Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism. Find more of her work at sarahmosquera.com