MOIESE — Hundreds of people gather from all over the region to celebrate the past, the present, and the future of the Bison Range in Montana's Mission Valley.
With ceremony, and commitment to a dream that's taken more than a century to fulfill, elders, and the young, gather to celebrate the restoration of the Bison Range, the 19,000 acre refuge that's finally been placed back into tribal hands.
"The amount of interchange between our people of buffalo just can't be overstated. It was really so connected." Tom McDonald, Chair of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes told the smiling crowd during opening remarks.
The tribes took over management of the Bison Range in December, as part of the settlement of the Montana Water Rights Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had managed the refuge for decades, with the federal government taking over the property during the Allotment of 1908.
CSKT Tribal member Vernon Finley with the Kootenai Culture Committee, praised all the work by staff and others behind the scenes that toiled for years to make the change a reality.
"There are so many people behind the scenes that lead to events like this. And CSKT is a leader because of it."
While there are sobering chapters to this story, today the excitement was about the future of the culture, and the learning. Salish Kootenai College Instructor Tim Ryan was having fun giving everyone a chance to see an actual bison robe that had been prepared by an indigenous craftsman.
"I'd like to teach our tribal members how to tan these bison hides, and so I think everyone should have a bison hide."
While there's a sense of accomplishment here today, there's also a remembrance of things yet to be done. Elders like 83-year old Stephen Small Salmon recall seeing Big Medicine, The White Buffalo, as a boy, and believe he should be returned as well.
"I saw him, you know, and I didn't think he'd ever leave here," Small Salmon told me as he was preparing his regalia for the powwow. "And I asked around. They said he's in Helena now. And that kind of made me mad. Today for 20 years I've been asking for them to bring it back here. I'd say, hey, we need The White Buffalo back here."
Ryan believes the return of the Bison Range opens all kinds of opportunities for future education.
"It's very, very vital to cultural resources on the landscape and the in the bison range here. We got access to it now and and that's what's really, really wonderful."
Small Salmon believes the restoration will bring healing, something needed so much in today's world.
"All the other tribes are together, you know, togetherness, and that's what I talk about. People that live here, you know. We should live together. We should help each other. Not talk bad about us, or other people."
I asked if he thought there are some lessons for people to learn today.
"I think so too, because you know today, look at all the people that come here, Small Salmon answered earnestly. "They come around to see what we're going to say about that, the Buffalo, you know."
And in those stories, a path from the past, into the future, seen in the smiles of the elders, and the enthusiasm of the youth.
The celebration continues Saturday with special guests and other events at the Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, and with half price entrance fees for everyone Sunday to tour the Bison Range.