MOIESE — This Mother’s Day weekend marked the traditional re-opening of Red Sleep Mountain Drive, where folks can observe the majestic bison that live on the Flathead Reservation in Western Montana.
But this year in particular marks a monumental new chapter for the Bison Range.
Friday morning, to commemorate the opening weekend, members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes gathered for a small ceremony. The Flathead Nation flag was raised in front of the visitor’s center, and traditional prayer, song, and drumming by the group Yamncut Drum ushered in the occasion. A "Buffalo Calling Song" was sung in celebration, and Séliš-Ql̓ispé Culture Committee Director Tony Incashola explained to MTN News the significance of the song.
“The ‘Buffalo Calling Song’ is kind of a special, spiritual song. It was a gift to the people from the buffalo that whenever they needed help, they’d sing that song - the call of the buffalo," Incashola said.
This opening weekend of the Bison Range is especially significant because this is the first season after the Tribes were restored federal trust ownership. The U.S. Congress repealed a statute that created the National Bison Range on Dec. 27, 2020, effectively establishing the Tribes would once again manage the land and roaming bison.
“You can look at today as a beginning - a new beginning," Incashola said. “A new start, for not only the Bison Range, but I would like to see this as the start of understanding of why it's so important to Native Americans. Why it's to us, especially as a Salish, Kalispel, and Kootenai People, why it’s so important. It’s not just about having it or controlling it, it’s more of an opportunity to care.”
The bison herd living at the Bison Range descends from a herd grown by CSKT Tribal members in the 1870’s when plains bison were near extinction.
According to the Montana Water Rights Protection Act, the National Bison Range was established in 1908 in the middle of the Flathead Reservation. However, the CSKT did not consent to the removal of this land by the federal government. The 2020 Act restores this land back to the Tribes.
Incashola said his hope for Bison Range visitors is to understand context, "so when you look at the bison, when you look at the animals, you need to look beyond that to understand what we really have here.”
MTN News also caught up with CSKT Tribal Council Chairwoman Shelly Fyant who was in attendance and addressed the crowd at the ceremony.
“Today just marks that re-connection with the buffalo nation, and we have so much to learn from the buffalo. They were an integral part of our culture for so many years, and that separation was really traumatic on our people,” Fyant said. “It's a very emotional day for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and officially re-establishing our footprint on the Bison Range."
Fyant said never giving up has paid off in restoring the land to the Tribes, "we have a really hard-working, dedicated staff that put a lot into this effort, and we’re just so thankful for today."
For $10 dollars per vehicle, visitors can drive the 19-mile auto tour of the Bison Range.
The Tribes are currently working with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to transition the area from federal to Tribal management.