A 2019 bipartisan bill restored their lands taken from them in the early 1900s. Now they work to preserve their history and heritage, and cement a foundation for future generations. With unprecedented access granted from Salish and Kootenai tribal leaders, filmmakers Kira Kay and Jason Maloney documented the rare, real-time return of the 19,000-acre National Bison Range - and the bison herd in it - back to Tribal leadership.
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It was the late afternoon of day two of the Bison capture, or round-up. Run by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) on the Bison Range, the 19,000 acre wildlife park they now operate on their Flathead Reservation is about an hour north of Missoula, Montana. We were there as two of the only non-tribal members or volunteers invited to film this simultaneously scientific and sacred process for an hour-long documentary.
After an early flurry of nerves and some confusion over the new data entry program, the tribe's processing of these deceptively cute-looking beasts had settled into low-key routine: pushed into the holding pen in small groups of about 15 animals; urged through the maze of corral chutes through a "low stress" maneuvering using flags; squeezed briefly into a miserable-looking vise for blood draw, other health checks and tagging; and then, sweet release back to the Range. And again with another, and another. Someone said after hour 22 that it felt like watching paint dry.
But then laughter and an audible sigh of relief wafted across the corral: Betty White had been spotted!
Betty White is a bison cow: she is believed to be about 20 years old and is a matriarch of the herd of approximately 350 bison roaming the stunningly beautiful, rolling hills of the CSKT Bison Range park. Easily recognized by her uniquely off-kilter horns, she had not been seen since the previous winter, leading tribal biologists to fear her demise. In some ways, the affirmation of Betty White's continued existence is not just about her, but about the promising future of her herd, which is now again being managed solely under tribal jurisdiction following a federal land return of the formerly National Bison Range.
For us, meeting Betty White was also a culmination of a year of multiple visits to see the land management and environmental preservation activities of the CSKT across multiple seasons and all the steps to build trust and formalize access through Tribal Council permissions, that this documentary would require.
On more than one occasion, tribal members spoke bluntly about having previously felt exploited by well-meaning, non-tribal filmmakers. The wide access the tribe ultimately afforded our team -- not just at the bison capture but to visit forestry work in the hills of the reservation, out on a boat on Flathead Lake with fisheries staffers, even an invitation to attend the annual, private River Honoring community gathering at the beginning of spring -- was a leap of faith for them that we are grateful for, and why we ultimately decided to make this film entirely in their voices, with no scripted words (a new way of working for us as long-time news reporters).
Returns of tribal lands in the U.S. are getting more frequent, but is still an uphill struggle for tribes; the legal route is almost always a non-starter: very costly, time consuming and rarely successful. Philanthropic financial support exists but it is often in the form of loans the tribes must pay back (though sometimes forgiven eventually). Buying back private land, when it comes on the commercial market, is a kind of last-resort tool utilized by tribes with an income flow, like the Nez Perce and the Yurok (who partially fund their purchase of ancestral forests from a logging company with money they make on the California carbon-offset market). Indigenous environmental historian Rosalyn LaPier says that while state and federal give backs are theoretically easier, because tribes are at least negotiating with a government entity instead of private landowners, they are still a challenge - the Black Hills in South Dakota being a prime example, where multiple land-use structures on those acres, and the income generated by natural resources extraction, makes the obstinance to return the Black Hills about more than just presidents chiseled on the face of Mount Rushmore.
This is why, besides being a feel-good story, the return of the Bison Range to the CSKT is one of importance that is being watched closely by other tribes, according to LaPier: the savvy with which the tribe's leadership combined multiple negotiations into one, leveraging support from local farmers and other economic and political interests to get behind a bundled Bison Range-water rights agreement - to (mostly) everyone's satisfaction after more than a hundred years of failed attempts to regain the Range.
And for us, as traditionally internationally-focused journalists who found the world closed to us during the peak years of the pandemic, and who therefore decided to look within the US for interesting stories of social justice and environmental preservation, is has been an incomparable learning experience punctuated with moments of sheer awe at the natural beauty surrounding us, culminating in a film that we hope allows viewers to join in our very special year on the range.