Monday, February 12, 2018

Native American Views of Yellowstone's Bison Hunt

Part Three in a series on the history, importance, and treatment of Yellowstone bison.

I have written extensively about the National Park Service's capture and slaughter of Yellowstone bison and the state-controlled bison hunt. But I have not written about the Native Americans who also hunt Yellowstone bison. That omission was intentional. I'm not a Native American. I'm no expert in Native American treaties, Native American culture, or the Native American relationship with bison. 

So when I heard in mid-October that five bison-hunting tribes were coming to Gardiner, Montana, to meet with us residents, I grabbed a pen, paper, and digital recorder and headed for the multi-purpose room of Gardiner school. 

The Confederated Salish & Kootenai, Umatilla, Nez Perce, Shoshone-Bannock, and Yakima tribes had arranged the meeting to be held before this winter’s bison hunt began. The tribes came from near and far and brought tribal leaders, natural resource managers, and conservation officers. 

My goal with this post is to let the Native American leaders speak for themselves and explain their views on hunting Yellowstone bison. I have included direct quotes. When I summarized or paraphrased, I did so without changing the speaker's meaning. I have added clarifying information in brackets. 

Introduction to the Meeting

Germaine White of the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) moderated. The event began with a prayer, as is customary, she said, with Native American meetings. 

Len Twoteeth, vice chair for the CSKT prayed that we have come to the meeting with open minds, that we would understand each other, and that we would leave with an idea of how to move forward on this bison issue.

Next, White explained that the CSKT had met with Gardiner residents ten years ago before the tribe’s first bison hunt near Gardiner. “We have a shared reverence for bison,” she said. “For many of us here, bison hunting is a subsistence hunt.” These bison nourish their communities and the hunt maintains an important cultural tradition. She emphasized that the tribes had come to this meeting primarily to listen to the concerns of Gardiner residents. She promised that the concerns would be considered before the tribal hunt begins.

Each tribe was allotted ten minutes to speak about their bison hunt program. After all tribal representatives spoke, Gardiner residents moved between the tribes to ask questions or share concerns.

Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes

Len Twoteeth, CSKT
Len Twoteeth spoke first and said that the tribes at the meeting have been historically bison-hunting tribes. They are able to hunt just outside Yellowstone and at the edge of Gardiner by treaty rights. They are respectful when doing so because, “We’re aware that the taxpayers of the state of Montana are watching us.”

“We need to be aware of the history of this herd,” Twoteeth said, “because the Salish, Kootenai, Pend d’Oreilles were instrumental in managing this herd in the past.” He explained that the tribes had one of the first bison herds and provided bison to Yellowstone to reinvigorate the park’s shrinking herd [in the early 1900s]. “It was an endeavor we are very proud of and we make sure that our membership understands the history...” 

He said that when there were problems with the bison hunt the tribes directed “our managers to get together and address the situation. Because we all know that when we get 60, 70, 80 hunters on one 40-acre parcel [Beattie Gulch], and you have bullets flying everywhere, something’s going to happen. We don’t want to wait till something happens; we acted.”

“We will continue to have meetings like this," Twoteeth said, "because we want to assure the community that we are here and we are not going away. We have an entitlement to the bison. This is an opportunity for many of us to feed our families.”

Rhonda Swaney, managing attorney for the CSKT, spoke next. She explained that Gardiner and Yellowstone are part of the aboriginal homeland of the CSKT and other tribes.

“We were hunters and gatherers. We roamed millions of acres in an area that is now British Columbia, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and of course the Greater Yellowstone Area.” 

“Every part of the bison that we took was used for clothing, food, tools, and shelter.” [She provided a diagram to show the uses]. 

“The things that we hunted and fished and gathered were important not only to our physical survival but our cultural and spiritual survival as well.”  

Swaney explained how federal policies in the late 1800s moved native people to small reservations. Federal policies also decimated the bison. “All this was in the name of settling the West.”

“Today the bison continue to play a very important part in our livelihood, our cultural ties, our historical ties, our stories, and consequently when we had the chance, we reinitiated the bison hunt [just outside Yellowstone].”  

“Federal Indian law is very clear," the attorney stated, "that treaties are the supreme law of the land. Even though they were made a long time ago and things have changed, they’re to be honored. We ceded millions of acres to the United States to reserve a permanent homeland where we wouldn’t be bothered. Many of those treaties have been broken. However, we still believe the promises made in the treaties and the spirit in which the promises were given.”

The CSKT signed the Hellgate treaty, which was negotiated in 1855 by Governor and Superintendent of Indian Affairs Isaac Stevens. The treaty was ratified in 1859.

She read some of the treaty language, which she explains reserves certain property rights and among those are “… the privilege of hunting, gathering roots and berries, and pasturing horses on all open and unclaimed land. That’s been defined by the courts to mean government owned land, land managed by the Forest Service, BLM, and other federal agencies. Treaty language has been much litigated, and that is the legal basis by which treaty reserve hunting takes place.”

In 2005 the Montana legislature offered to give two bison permits to each tribe. The CSKT replied that they weren’t interested in only two permits. They wanted to reinitiate their bison hunt. In 2007 they did so. 

She explained how tribal hunters are regulated. There is an orientation that a member must attend before receiving a bison permit. CSKT game wardens patrol the area where bison are taken and will cite members who violate regulations. “Those violators are prosecuted in tribal court and sometimes they’re not allowed to hunt further or for a great period of time.”

The CSKT bison hunt season runs between September and January 31. Other tribes have different seasons and regulations. 

CSKT supports treaty hunting as a bison population management tool and generally opposes ship-to-slaughter practices [such as at Stephens Creek].

Concluding, she stated that the right to hunt bison is a property right, and “as mentioned earlier, we’re not going away, we’re here to stay.”

Nez Perce Tribe

Quintin Ellenwood, Nez Perce
Quintin Ellenwood, member of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, spoke next. He explained that their tribal hunt is administered by the Nez Perce Tribe Fish and Wildlife Commission and is the only hunt that the commission administers. The Nez Perce started their bison hunt in 2006 and 2007.

“The Nez Perce people have been here since time immemorial,” said Ellenwood. He added that one of their great chiefs, Chief Looking Glass, once camped near where the Stephens Creek Bison Capture Facility now stands. At the time of the treaties, Chief Looking Glass was the Nez Perce hunting chief. “It was guaranteed to him in stone and in writing, black and white, that the Nez Perce people will always have that exclusive right to come here to hunt and fish along with the citizens of this state. That what it says in our treaty.”

He then asked Nakia Williamson-Cloud, Nez Perce Tribe Cultural Resources Program Director, to speak.

“You must understand that our people, the Nimi’ipuu...have no history of a migration from any other land," Williamson-Cloud said. He described how some Montana places such as those now called Livingston and Big Timber, were once camps of Nez Perce. 

“When Lewis and Clark came in 1805,” he continued, “they said look at this wilderness. Look at this place where everything is growing natural. It wasn’t a wilderness. It was a place where we interacted for thousands and thousands of years. When you take Nez Perce people out of that ecology that land suffers too. And we can show you scientific evidence of how that happens.”

“It’s this interaction with the land, that we now call resources, that defines our identity as Nez Perce people.”

“So when management decisions are made on this landscape, it’s an impact on us.”

The salmon and the bison are essential to Nez Perce. “It’s more than just a hunt, it’s our life we’re taking care of.”

Confederated Tribes of Umatilla Indian Reservation

Jeremy Red Star Wolf, Umatilla
Jeremy Red Star Wolf, Vice-Chair, Board of Trustees, Confederated Tribes of Umatilla Indian Reservation, introduced himself by saying, “I’m a young politician but one of the things that the tribe has always reminded me of…don’t forget that word ‘retained.’”

He said this important word shows that some things the tribes do today were done before the treaties existed.

The Umatilla treaty was ratified in 1859. “It was a hard decision to make at that time,” Red Star Wolf said. “There was a lot of pressure being put upon all of our people.”

He said that the minutes taken during treaty negotiations mention discussing the usual and customary places the tribes could hunt and fish and gather. Those treaty minutes “specifically named buffalo.”

The three confederated tribes—Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla—had lived in the Columbia River Region for more than 10,000 years. They spent most of their time in the area now called northeastern Oregon and southeastern Washington. Their foods included salmon, roots, berries, deer, and elk. Each could be found in different places, and each was available in different seasons. The tribes moved from place to place from season to season to gather food and prepare it for winter storage. They followed the same route from year to year in a large circle from lowlands along the Columbia River to highlands in the Blue Mountains.

“When the elders were signing our treaty and talking about the foods they were protecting,” Red Star Wolf emphasized, “they always named the buffalo first.” 

In 2011, the Umatilla first came from Oregon to Yellowstone to hunt bison.

“I’m very proud that the tribes have recognized some of the issues [with the bison hunt], specifically in Beattie Gulch that we are managing together.” Those issues include education and communication between tribes. The tribes discuss their individual treaties, rules, and regulations and how they can be implemented for the benefit of all tribes. Hunters from different tribes live by different laws, both written and unwritten. Four of the tribes have come up with a proposed memorandum of agreement [MOA] that describes rules tribal hunters will live by.

Red Star Wolf concluded that it takes Umatilla hunters “anywhere from five to twelve hours to get here, and you feel the pressure to come home with something. You don’t want to let that pressure get in the way of taking a good kill and getting the animal cleanly.”

Yakima Tribe

Edwin Lewis, member of the Yakima Nation Tribal Council, recalled that in the 1850s “tribes and bands sat down with Governor Stevens. And there were many harsh words going back and forth between the United States and these fourteen tribes and bands.” There was tremendous pressure put on the Yakima people to establish a treaty. A treaty was executed in 1855 and ratified by the US Congress in 1859. 

In the treaty the Yakima people “reserved 1.4 million acres and ceded to the US government more than eleven million acres in what is now the central part of Washington.”

Lewis echoed an earlier speaker that "federal policy and the treaties made thereunder constitute the supreme law of the land.”

The Yakima retained the right to hunt and fish in all usual and accustomed places. Their right to hunt, he clarified, expands even beyond the ceded area to wherever the tribe can establish they once hunted or fished. They have established that they took bison in the Yellowstone area. He adds that in the minutes related to that treaty, “Our ancestors spoke about the Yellowstone area.” 

In their first modern Yellowstone hunt, the Yakima took thirteen bison. “And for each bison we did a ceremony, we did a song,” Lewis said. “We honored each bison that was taken.”

They took the bison back to the reservation. “We had a special ceremony at one of our churches. And we again honored the buffalo. We divided all the buffalo up amongst our people.” The Yakima will, he added, continue to hunt, honor, and share the bison with their people. 

The Yakima Nation has rules that regulate its hunters. “Safety is paramount and to take care of the buffalo.”

The Yakima’s right to hunt and fish, said Lewis, has been litigated in the courts. And from that comes an understanding that to take fish, for example, involves much more than putting a hook and line in the water. “The treaty says you have the right to take fish. And that meant that you must have the habitat, you must have the right water conditions, you must have all of those things that support the resource, and that includes our foods and medicines, our berries, and everything else.”

Shoshone-Bannock Tribes

Nathan Small, Shoshone-Bannock
Nathan Small, Chairman of the Fort Hall Business Council, which governs the Shoshone-Bannock, said, “Our people have been in this area for quite some time. You hear talk about time immemorial. We were truly here. In fact we were one of the last tribes to be taken out of Yellowstone National Park.”

“We always had a group of people that were living here permanently. They were called the Sheepeaters”

He explained that the Sheepeaters were removed after the Nez Perce came into Yellowstone while fleeing US soldiers. The Nez Perce, he said, caused problems with the tourists. After that trouble, US soldiers rounded up the Sheepeaters and “moved us out. It was not because of what we did. It was because of what someone else had done.” Many of the Shoshone-Bannock ended up at Fort Hall along the Snake River north of Pocatello, Idaho.

There was a treaty that was worked out “and it includes southwestern Montana and this area.” While the Shoshone-Bannock signed the treaty in 1868, Small stated, “It never was ratified so we feel that this land is still ours.”

He said that under the treaty the Shoshone-Bannock “are going to continue to have the right to hunt, fish, and gather outside the boundaries of the current Fort Hall Indian Reservation. And we practice that.”

“We’ve never caused any problems anywhere,” Small emphasized. For a long time “our people came out here discretely, took the buffalo, and left." 

The Shoshone-Bannock have regulations for their hunters. “And if they mess up or break one of our rules, they could lose their right to hunt.”

“We’ve been self-regulating the conduct of our people for a long, long time.”

“Every time we come out here we notify our fish and game department and they come out here with us to make sure we’re following the regulations and to protect us from others that might cause us problems.”

Small said that he does not want the Shoshone-Bannock included with other tribes as far as problems with the bison hunt. “We did not sign on to any of these MOA [memorandum of agreement that sets rules for tribal hunters]. We’re not a part of any organization out here because we feel that if we did enter that kind of a mess, we’d be a part of that and giving up our sovereignty. We regulate our own. We punish our own. And we do it in the most respectful way.”

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  1. Verify informative article ! I did not know about the different tribes and all the different treaties involved. I am glad that the govt. Honors those treaties and recognizes the rights of the tribes to hunt and harvest the buffalo and other natural resources as they have done for many centuries. Why does our usws still feel the need to round up and kill many buffalo even when they could allow our native American Indians to take more to feed there people. I also see no need for the hunters from Montana and Wyoming to stand just out side of yellow stone and kill these animals when our tribes could use them. This all seems unnecessary and it may even be causing a decline in the herds that could hurt the population of these animals? Would it not make more sense to let the tribes and wolves eat what they need and keep the govt. Out of it along with state sanctioned hunts as well ? Just a thought on my part that would seem a much better solution than what is being done now. Thanx Rick for the info.

  2. I agree: the biggest problem with the bison is not the First Nations hunters, it is all the government agencies who do most of the killing. The endangered ones must be protected; white people have absolutely no right to any of the surviving bison, and should be prohibited from all hunting. And the bison in the traps should be freed or given to the tribes. White men killed millions of bison in the 1800s: we've more than filled our quota for the next millennium.

  3. Thank you Rick for this very informative article.