By Amy Ray
We had one last day of learning about some significant Native justice issues in Montana. We left from our hotel on Flathead Lake to travel down to the National Bison Range on the reservation. We were lucky to hear a last impromptu rallying talk from Jodi Rave and Eriel Deranger about the emotional perspective they have while doing work on behalf of Native social and environmental justice. It can’t really be overstated how important it is to have your land and culture in tact, and to understand the challenge of working on these issues in communities where the basics of food and shelter are still hard to come by.
Having activists like Jodi, Eriel, and Winona can help build a bridge of understanding to non-Natives about the realities of environmental racism and the complexities of solving these problems. We went to the visitors center at the National Bison Range and learned the history of the land and its herd. For such a simple place of beauty, the history is very complicated and underhanded at times. I wasn’t quite sure how to assimilate all the information, but I think I got the gist of it.
Most of us know the history of the bison and its systematic decimation by the new white Americans during the early days of western expansion. These animals were so valuable for food and spirituality to the Plains tribes that the killing off of the bison was seen by many leaders as the way to get rid of the Indians.
The Indian Allotment Act of 1887 divided Indian land into allotments for the tribe’s members, ignoring their traditional view of land use and ushering in the myriad of ways in which a tribe’s land base was decreased and checker boarded into noncontiguous areas of land. The National Bison Range was created by Congress in 1908, at the request of President Theodore Roosevelt, who had a love affair with the natural world and especially the beauty and romantic qualities of the old Wild West. The first federal purchase of land for the purpose of creating a wildlife refuge was completed in 1909 when 18,500 acres were transferred from unallotted lands on the Flathead Indian Reservation in exchange for payment to the Confederated Kootenai and Salish. An additional price was awarded to the tribe later in recognition of the first payment being inaccurate. Since then the tribe has negotiated with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to come to a place where they have the right to manage this resource that is so sacred to them. Currently, the tribe works in partnership with the U.S. Government. It’s pretty heady stuff and there’s a lot of disagreement about what happened. Suffice it to say, I always consider the source in these disagreements. It’s not like the U.S. government had a stellar history of sticking to treaties or treating tribes fairly.
Our tour was brought to a beautiful conclusion with a reception party thrown by the WDN. It included dinner, songs, and a talking circle to go over everyone’s reactions and feelings about the tour.
The next morning I woke up to a frontpage story in The Missoulian about one of the issues we are working on- “the heavy haul” of equipment for oil development in the tar sands oil flat in Alberta. It’s nice to have allies!