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Emotional ceremony marks transfer of Bison Range management | Local News

PABLO — Interior Secretary Deb Haaland teared up Saturday while speaking at a celebration for the restoration of the Bison Range to Tribal control.

The event marked the return of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ management of the nearly 19,000-acre Bison Range, a preserve that was created by the federal government in the early 1900s in the midst of the Flathead Reservation.

The establishment of the federally managed Bison Range led to the sale of many of the bison that roamed the land, as well as the exclusion of Tribal members from being permitted to work there.

With the enactment of the Montana Water Rights Protection Act in 2020, the Bison Range returned to the CSKT’s control. The Tribes officially took over the Bison Range on Jan. 2, 2022.

Haaland wasn’t the only one overwhelmed by the momentousness of the occasion Saturday. Throughout the multigenerational crowd, there was a palpable reverence for the operational transfer and its significance for conservation, the CSKT and the greater Montana community.

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“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,” said Haaland. “…Today represents a return to something pure and sacred.”

Haaland’s speech marked the midway point of a long weekend of celebrations for the Bison Range, starting with a powwow on Friday and capping off with reduced-price entry to the Bison Range on Sunday.

CSKT spokesman Shane Morigeau said the meaning of Haaland’s presence as the first Indigenous woman to serve as secretary of the interior, “can’t be overstated.”

Haaland was joined by a slew of guests at Salish Kootenai College Saturday celebrating the historic event.

“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,” said Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras, referencing two historic Tribal figures who played key roles in the preservation of Montana’s bison herds.

“Your tribe has been a model for conservation,” Juras told the CSKT members gathered at the college.

Members of the Tribes shared their guests’ enthusiasm.

“This is a new beginning for healing,” said CSKT Tribal Chairman Tom McDonald. “The restoration of the Bison Range is a restoration of more than just land. 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.”

This focus on the next generation threaded throughout the presentations Saturday. Johnny Arlee implored Tribal youth to use the restoration of the Bison Range as a catalyst for other pursuits, like education and commitment to Tribal heritage.

“We need all of you young people to step up, take the role and do something to carry our tradition on,” Arlee urged.

The return of the Bison Range carries unique significance to each Tribal member.

“People are just so happy we got it back,” said Stephen Smallsalmon.

He hopes that the restoration of Tribal control over the Bison Range will lead to the birth of another white buffalo like Big Medicine, a rare white calf born in 1933. Smallsalmon said the white buffalo holds special meaning for members of local Tribes.

“Coming full circle, it feels really good to be here,” said Bryan Brazill. To Brazill, the weekend signified reunification for the descendants of the original bison and the humans who stewarded them. 

“We have a strong relationship with the bison,” Brazill said.  

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