BROWNING — The Blackfeet Indians have waited a long time for bison to return to their homeland. An extra 12 hours wouldn’t hurt.
After assembling at 10 a.m. Tuesday on a former cattle ranch just south of Browning, Iinnii Days coordinator Teri Dahle learned the truck hauling a dozen yearling bison from California had broken down in northern Nevada. The yearlings, who left Elk Island National Park in Alberta as unborn calves in a group of 14 bison cows getting donated to the Oakland Zoo last year, were coming to join a growing herd of Blackfeet buffalo and complete a circle of restoration a century in the making.
More on that shortly. The delay gave members of the Iinnii Initiative a beautiful morning to accomplish another goal: sanctifying and renaming, and repurposing the ranch as the centerpiece of the tribe’s return to buffalo culture.
Sacred Horn Society members Michael Bruised Head and Peter Weasel Moccasin came down from Calgary, Alberta, to lead a pipe ceremony with Blackfeet Reservation members Tyson Running Wolf and Jesse DeRosier. About 60 people made an open circle around the pipe holders; women arced to the right and men to the left with an opening gap facing the eastern Sweetgrass Hills. After songs and prayers, the four men lit and smoked two pipes, grabbing handfuls of smoke and passing it over their heads, down their bodies and into the dirt where they sat. Then they passed the pipes to the witnesses, who each took four puffs. Children too young for the ceremony received four taps on the shoulders from the pipe stem.
“It’s been 130 years since the Sacred Horn Society was back,” Bruised Head told the Missoulian after the pipes returned. “Now these hills will have a name so you can remember it — so when you drive by, these hills will have more meaning.”
The new name translates as Buffalo Spirit Hills, and drivers to Browning and Glacier National Park will pass it along the highway. Iinnii is a complex word in the Blackfeet language, meaning something that takes away hard things and gives good things in their place, the way in Blackfeet tradition the buffalo saved the starving people by giving them a resource to live off.
Its grasslands stun the imagination. Walk 10 minutes away from the headquarters building and over a few hills, and civilization vanishes. Not even a fence line can be seen for miles of rolling green, stretching seemingly all the way to the Rocky Mountain Front.
And across that prairie, for a lucky watcher, wild bison run with a thunderous noise that can be felt as well as heard. As quickly as they come they vanish in a fold of the earth, and the evening air refills with the creak of several kinds of tiny frogs in the ponds at the bottom of the hills.
A truckload of Iinnii Initiative interns spent an hour seeking glimpses of the herd, until word came that the California newcomers had unexpectedly made up time. Instead of a midnight arrival, they were suddenly at Birch Creek by 9:30 p.m.; just half an hour away.
“This is them, this is them,” Dahle yelled to the determined crowd of well wishers. Helen Dayle put her 3-year-old son Rustin Running Crane in the truck and headed to the pasture fence. She’d been an intern two years ago when the first Elk Island buffalo shipment came directly to the Blackfeet Reservation. Now about to finish her college degree and become a science teacher, she was determined that her son would take part in the return.
Despite the hour, Rustin was wide-eyed with anticipation. When the pickup hauling the stock trailer finally pulled into the gate at 9:50 p.m. he was standing by his mother waiting for the perfect view.
The actual release took less than 5 minutes. Handlers opened the trailer gates and a dozen bison bolted into the gloom like sailors finally reaching land.
“I saw them running,” Rustin said. “They were faster than my dog. They were faster than a triceratops.”
Oakland Zoo native wildlife program director Joel Parrott said bringing the Elk Island bison cows to the Bay Area last year has had a huge impact on wildlife enthusiasts. The project allowed the zoo to expand its traditional role of preserving and displaying remarkable animals to actively helping return them to their native environments.
To briefly explain, North America’s more than 30 million bison nearly disappeared from the continent in the mid-1800s. They fell to market hunters and settlers determined to change the open Great Plains from a wildlife environment to domesticated ranches and farms, as well as to diseases brought by the imposition of cattle on their range. The transformation also stripped the culture and economy from Native American tribes that had depended on bison hunting for food, materials and spirituality.
Toward the end of the 19th century, conservationists attempted to resuscitate what was left of the species. By then, perhaps a thousand were left, many in groups of a dozen or so collected by ranchers. But one group was brought by Indians from the Blackfeet homeland to the Flathead Reservation, where they became the foundation of the herd on the present-day National Bison Range.
But before that could happen, its Salish Indian owners unsuccessfully tried to sell the herd to the U.S. government. When that failed, the Canadian government stepped in and moved most of the herd to Alberta, founding Elk Island National Park in the process.
That herd has grown beyond its landscape’s capacity, so the Canadians occasionally provide culls to suitable new homes. When the Blackfeet learned of the opportunity, they arranged to adopt a new herd. It was delivered in 2016. (See related story online.)
“We’ve taken the model of the Iinnii to 1 million visitors a year,” Parrott said. “We helped with the first Elk Island delivery, and that drew enormous attention. The spiritual quality of these bison brought the Indian nation together, and it brought Oakland to Montana. ”
Blackfeet Agriculture Department Director Ervin Carlson coordinated the official transfer. But, he said, looking at the calves, he realized the circle was far larger than a paperwork arrangement.
“These bison left as calves, and they wanted to return as calves,” Carlson said. “I’ve realized that everything we’ve been doing with these animals happened the way they wanted it to. It’s like they put themselves in storage all these years, until we were ready for them to come back.”
After the calves disappeared into the night, Leo Bird told star stories around the campfire long into the night. Just retired as a teacher for 22 years, Bird recalled how his mentors told him to be like a bison, but he didn’t understand at first.
Eventually he observed how the bison alone among plains animals faces into oncoming storms, so he started facing his problems that way. He saw how the Blackfeet herd quickly changed the landscape so beaver and swans started returning. And he began building those lessons into his classroom lectures.
“You show the kids the buffalo hair stuck on the fence, and there’s seeds in it,” Bird said. “Birds take that hair for their nests so they can hatch their eggs. The seeds replenish the grass that the bison eats. We planted some in class. As soon as the kids saw the grass growing out of the hair, they understood.”