In the People's Interest

Indigenous bison, people both belong in Montana


When Gov. Greg Gianforte signed a backdoor anti-bison settlement deal that forbade any bison being on Montana public lands, he exemplified longstanding manifest destiny policy stemming from the 19th century.

After the U.S. Army was defeated by Lakota, Arapaho and Cheyenne allies in Red Cloud’s war and the Fort Laramie Treaty was signed in April 1868. The previous year Col. Richard Dodge bluntly recognized the importance of bison to nomadic Plains Indians as a lifeline: “Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.

Secretary of the Interior in the Interior, Columbus Delano, knew once bison were eradicated Indians would have to surrender to the reservation system, noting in his 1872 annual report. The rapid disappearance of game from the former hunting-grounds must operate largely in favor of our efforts to confine the Indians to smaller areas, and compel them to abandon their nomadic customs.

Despite it being illegal to kill bison on treaty lands, the U.S. Army was complicit in allowing forts to be used as bases for buffalo hide hunters for the wanton slaughter tens of millions of them. U.S. Army eyes looked away when whites illegally killed a bison for sport but when an Indian killed a cow for food because of the scarcity of bison, they were severely reprimanded.
As the public eventually became appalled by such savagery against bison, legislation was introduced in Congress by Republican Rep. Greenburg, Fort of Illinois in 1874, that make it unlawful for any person who is not an Indian to kill, wound, or in any manner destroy any female buffalo, of any age, found at large within the boundaries of any of the Territories of the United States.

The bill made it through Congress but was vetoed by President Ulysses S. Grant as the formerly nomadic tribes were then starved onto reservations as Delano predicted.

The North American bison who have roamed these lands since the time of woolly mammoths, numbers would drop from an estimated 30 million in the mid-1800s to less than 400 in the wild by 1893.

As bison numbers began to uptick after conservation efforts, foreign cattle would transmit brucellosis to Indigenous bison. They again would be slaughtered by the thousands for the ironic reason of being carriers of it although there has never been a recorded instance of bison to cattle transmission of the disease.

Anti-bison groups have heard this brucellosis fact enough over the years to know they’re either being purposefully obtuse or outright lying when using it as a canned anti-bison talking point. Yet, you don’t see them advocating for slaughtering elk by the tens of thousands who actually have transmitted brucellosis to cattle. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 2002 and 2012, brucellosis was discovered in 17 cattle herds, all of it from elk.

If one attends a hearing on bison matters, one can’t help but compare how this seems an Old West Cowboys versus Indians war with foreign cattle versus indigenous bison who face seething hostile prejudices.

While not apathetic to cattle rancher livelihoods and while most Montanans appreciate our vibrant beef economy, there’s no way to put this other than bluntly: it is disingenuous they should have sole public grazing rights to public lands all Montanans are supposed to enjoy, and then abuse that granted welfare as a dictatorial permission to shut down all other voices. Prior, with the overly bureaucratic, glacial implementation of steps over years of bison being proposed to be reintroduced on Montana public lands, select farmers and ranchers were simply anti-bison that whole while, period.

So when Gianforte claimed Montana’s plans didn’t do right by farmers, ranchers and private property owners, it was the definition of Gaslighting 101 to Montana Native American tribes who weren’t consulted at all and had to hear about their own future plans for bison being introduced on treaty lands being thwarted via an Associated Press news article.
At one anti-bison bill hearing, a white woman said we will never allow bison on our lands. After a trans male colleague of mine testified on behalf of the animal which had been the Plains Indian lifeline for millennia, someone in the halls of the Capitol said as they passed, “We don’t want those bison here just like we don’t want them here”

Such is the intersectionality of old prejudices against that which is indigenous in Montana. But we Indigenous folks do belong here, as do bison.

Adrian L. Jawort is Northern Cheyenne, and research and policy analyst for Montana Native Vote (aka Indigenous Vote).
Missoulian Letter to the Editor 4/26/21

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