Connecting Through Buffalo

The Iinnii Art Show at Imagine IF Library brings work by Blackfeet artists to Kalispell, illustrating the sacred significance of the buffalo

By Charlotte Bausch
A piece by Blackfeet artist Teri Dahle. Courtesy Image

Although the Blackfeet Nation isn’t far from Kalispell, it can feel like the places have few points of contact. A new art show at the ImagineIF Library hopes to change that.

The Iinnii Art Show connects library visitors with the Blackfeet Nation by displaying a variety of works by Blackfeet artists, all of which explore the importance of the tribe’s relationship with the buffalo. The show is on display at the ImagineIF Library in Kalispell in August and September, and then at the Columbia Falls branch in October and November.

Connie Behe, the director of Kalispell’s ImagineIF Library, said the exhibit was planned because “we wanted to have more connection between Indigenous artists and culture and our library here.”

“We have a large Indigenous population, not just in Browning, which is so close by, but also in Kalispell and in Flathead County,” Behe said. “And we want to make sure our spaces are open and welcoming to everyone.”

The show got started when Behe met Teri Dahle, an artist and the coordinator of the Blackfeet Nation’s Iinnii Initiative, at an art show in the spring.

“It was one of those great serendipitous moments,” Behe said.

The two soon started talking about organizing an exhibit of work by Blackfeet artists at ImagineIF. When they began looking for themes, Dahle thought bison were a natural choice. The show could “use the buffalo as the connection to our art, and to our people,” Dahle said.

Buffalo, or “iinnii” in Blackfeet, have long been an essential part of Blackfeet culture. They provided food, clothing and shelter to the Blackfeet Nation for thousands of years. With a way of life so connected to the animals, the bison had special significance to the Blackfeet.

“It’s always been said that we are one, the creator made them for us,” Dahle said. “Iinnii actually means ‘taking your hardship away.’”

In the 1800s, the tens of millions of bison that had roamed North America nearly went extinct, slaughtered by settlers.

“Just imagine your whole lifestyle, that was totally centered around that one animal, being lost,” Dahle said.

After years of separation from the buffalo, today many Blackfeet people are detached from their ancestral connection to the animals.

The Iinnii Initiative, which was launched in 2009 to conserve lands, protect Blackfeet culture and ensure buffalo have a home, is working to change that. In 2016, thanks to the efforts of the Initiative, 88 buffalo were reintroduced to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.

With this recent success, the Iinnii Initiative is continuing its work to connect people with the buffalo. In May, they created an event called Iinnii Days to celebrate bison. They will soon be hosting buffalo tours where people can observe and learn about the animals. Ultimately, they plan to build the Iinnii-Buffalo Spirit Center to preserve and perpetuate Blackfeet culture.

The Iinnii Art Show is part of their larger outreach. Through artwork, it will show visitors the importance of the buffalo and expose them to the work of Blackfeet artists. For Behe of ImagineIF, displaying art from diverse communities in the library is an important way of making the space more inclusive.

“If you come into a space and you see yourself represented and your artwork and stories are being told about you,” Behe said, “you just feel more comfortable, sometimes without even knowing why.”

Dahle hopes the exhibit will remind people in Kalispell of how close they are to the Blackfeet Nation.

“We only live 100 miles apart, but it seems like [with] those mountains, it’s two different worlds,” Dahle said. “And it shouldn’t be.”

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