Big Medicine was born in 1933 on the range of the Flathead Indian Reservation in western Montana. The rare white bison became revered in his lifetime on the land the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes called home.
He lived for about 36 years, then died in 1959. Because he lived on a national wildlife refuge, as managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the tribes lost control of Big Medicine. Big Medicine was taxidermied, and for more than six decades has been under management and ownership of the state, on display at the Montana Historical Society in Helena.
The tribe has made concerted efforts to regain control of Big Medicine. Similarly, the tribe has also worked to regain management of the wildlife refuge that the white bison knew as home.
“[Big Medicine’s] return to the Flathead Reservation would further our peoples’ healing process and provide a unique opportunity for the Montana Historical Society to right a wrong in our shared history,” tribal leaders stated in a 2022 letter to the state, officially requesting that Big Medicine be returned home.
Now, both the state and federal governments agree. As the tribe has taken over management of the wildlife refuge, it also now has a plan in place to bring Big Medicine home, although there is currently no timeline set. The tribes have a significant to-do list to accomplish before the actual move, which does not currently have a set schedule.
The project is the result of the coordinated efforts of the Montana Historical Society and the state to repatriate Indigenous artifacts and culturally significant items to tribes. That includes Big Medicine, who was moved from the reservation to the historical society facility in the state capital in 1961.
The first peoples of the Flathead Valley quickly noticed the rapid decline of buffalo during the era of European expansion and colonization. According to tribal history, a Qlispé man named Atatice had a vision to save the bison from extinction. His son, Łatato, carried out his father’s dream and helped the tribes secure the initial bison herd.
In the late 1800s, two tribal members, Michel Pablo and Charles Allard, brought bison back to their homelands to replenish the open-range herd. But then came the Allotment Act, an initiative by which the U.S. government forced tribes to give up land and open up space to settlers coming onto the reservation, which then forced the tribe to sell off its bison herd.
Simultaneously, the government also claimed a portion of the land and dedicated it as the National Bison Range, to be managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The bison herd was composed of descendants of the Allard-Pablo herd, which were purchased and reintroduced to the bison range where the herd lives today. Among those descendants was Big Medicine.
The CSKT have made numerous efforts to reclaim the range throughout the decades, but it wasn’t until 2022 when the bison range was officially restored to the tribes.
The birth of Big Medicine meant many things for the CSKT, whose elders viewed him as a gift from their creator, while others saw him as a healer. In the letter requesting Big Medicine’s return, tribal Chairman Tom McDonald wrote, “He is a continuous reminder to our people to preserve and honor our responsibility to conserve and protect bison — our family.”
WHERE HAS BIG MEDICINE BEEN?
The first director of the Montana Historical Society, historian and author K. Ross Toole, requested that the white bison be sent to the historical society after its death.
In 1954 the U.S. Interior Department agreed to donate the animal’s head and hide to the historical society, which in 1961 had it taxidermied. Big Medicine has been displayed in the Historical Society Museum ever since, and has been moved only for the exhibit’s reconfiguration, according to the organization.
The massive white bison stands on the second level of the museum in front of a mural depicting the landscape of the bison range. The museum building is currently undergoing renovations of its own renovations, which have reduced other exhibits to only-online access.
Molly Kruckberg, MHS’ current director, said she understands why it’s time to return Big Medicine.
“This is not a repatriation request under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act,” she stated in an emailed news release. “Instead, this decision comes from discussions made on a government-to-government basis. The Montana Historical Society regularly seeks advice and information from Montana’s Tribes, and this transfer of ownership reflects that positive relationship.”
The historical society also consulted with its Indian Advisory Panel, which the society formed in 2001. The panel is made up of representatives from each of the tribes in Montana. The panel, along with tribal elders, provides advice and consultation on the museum’s artifacts and exhibits.
MHS is continuing to hold Big Medicine in Helena until there is infrastructure in place on the Flathead Indian Reservation to receive him, public information officer Eve Byron said.
“When they [CSKT] talk about the value that he has to them, it’s not a monetary value, it’s a spiritual value. We really appreciate that and we recognize that,” Byron said. “They had promised that they will take the same care of him, the same loving care of him that we have here over the years. And it was just the right thing to do, which is why our board voted unanimously to return Big Medicine.”
PLANS FOR THE FUTURE
February 2023 marked the one-year anniversary of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes assuming management of the national bison range — now known as the CSKT Bison Range — from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. While the tribe has made some significant changes so far, the future holds even more challenges.
“I would say that there’s been some different processes over time,” said wildlife biologist Whisper Camel-Means, division manager for the tribal Fish Wildlife, Recreation and Conservation department. “The tribes have been working to get control or restoration of the lands and the facility back to the tribes for many years.”
Camel-Means said the effort has been turbulent. In particular because the tribes were also negotiating a new water compact.
Camel-Means has worked in the CSKT wildlife program for 22 years. She oversees the bison range, where she has been focused on expanding the visitor center, which will eventually house Big Medicine.
The current visitor center, located at the entrance to the range, was built in 1981 and does not have ADA accommodations, a shortcoming renovation plans are addressing.The tribe is working to get the building up to modern standards, ensure water quality, and replace fencing around the 18,766 acre range.
According to tribal attorney Brian Upton, the bison range received more than 200,000 visitors annually when it was managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Renovations and establishing secure infrastructure are first priorities for the range, according to Camel-Means. But funding for the projects has been inconsistent.
“It’s really in a pretty rundown condition and the infrastructure likely needed to be replaced. We are fixing things all the time and trying to clean up stuff,” Camel-Means said.
USFWS provided some maintenance funding of $5.4 million, according to a letter from the department, but the tribes now bear the cost of operating and maintaining the range moving forward.
“So they did give us some support as a transition into the management. We have to come up with funding by running the facility in a way that makes money so that we can put that back into operations,” Camel-Means said.
Those strategies included raising range entry fees from $10 to $20 and opening a gift shop in the visitors center featuring snacks and locally made products including art, jewelry and clothing.
Shane Morigeau, deputy executive officer of public affairs and communications for the CSKT, spoke in a brief interview about the tribes’ goals for the range. He said it’s important to create a center d that will educate visitors about Indigenous history rather than focus on revenue.
“We want visitors walking away with a better understanding on Indigenous people in this state,” Morigeau said.
Until the visitor center is ready for expansion, Camel-Means said, she wants to make sure the current facility is safe and helpful for both staff and visitors.
She also wants to ensure the range is safe and hospitable for bison, which she considers a symbol of the land and its connection to the tribes.
“These are our bison,” Camel-Means said. “And so I feel like that’s the importance of them, that we’re making that connection to the time when we didn’t have the access or the participation with the range.”
This story is co-published by Montana Free Press and ICT, a news partnership that covers the Montana American Indian Caucus during the state’s 2023 legislative session. Funding is provided in part by the Headwaters Foundation.
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