Advertisement

The Excerpt podcast: The return of the bison, a wildlife success story

On Sunday's episode of The Excerpt podcast: Bison hold deep importance for Native Americans – though their history has often been fraught with tragedy. After being pushed near extinction, the animals have finally made a comeback and are returning to Indigenous lands, restoring long-held traditions. In honor of Native American Heritage Month, we are sharing the story of the bison through Stephanie Gillin, the Information and Education Program Manager for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, who has spent the past three decades focusing on securing their return.

Podcasts: True crime, in-depth interviews and more USA TODAY podcasts right here

Hit play on the player above to hear the podcast and follow along with the transcript below. This transcript was automatically generated, and then edited for clarity in its current form. There may be some differences between the audio and the text.

Taylor Wilson:

Hello, and welcome to The Excerpt. I'm Taylor Wilson. Today is Sunday, November 26th, 2023.

Bison hold deep importance for Native Americans, though their history has often been fraught with tragedy. After being pushed near extinction, the animals have finally made a comeback and are returning to indigenous lands, restoring long-held traditions. In honor of Native American Heritage Month, we wanted to focus in on an issue that is of great meaning to indigenous Americans and share their perspective.

I'm now joined by Stephanie Gillin, the Information and Education Program Manager for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, who has spent the past three decades focusing on securing the return of the bison.

Stephanie, thanks for coming on The Excerpt.

Stephanie Gillin:

Thanks for the invite.

Taylor Wilson:

I want to start with a broad question here at the top, but an important one. What is the importance of bison for Native Americans?

Stephanie Gillin:

So we can speak for our tribe, which is on our reservation, is made up of the Salish or Salish, the Kalispel, otherwise known as Pend d'Oreille, and our Kasonka, which is our Kootenai. So we have three different nations living within our reservation. But for our ancestors, we definitely depended on them for not only food but spiritually as well. So almost all of the animal was used including the hide with hair on for clothing. The hide was scraped and it took 16 bison hides to make a teepee and everything from bones for tools close to 2000 pounds of meat depending on the size of the animal was utilized and dried and used throughout the winters for survival. But so many things, we relied upon our ancestors to survive our harsh Montana winters. And then it came to the point where bison numbers were starting to drop and we didn't have the bison to turn to. And so in turn we helped the bison very spiritually and for materials as well.

Taylor Wilson:

And Stephanie, I've heard the word buffalo also used when referring to bison. Which word do you use? And why do some indigenous Americans call them buffalo?

Stephanie Gillin:

We use both. So my background... I'm a wildlife biologist, which I was a wildlife biologist for our tribal wildlife program for 21 years prior to my information and education career. Scientifically, bison is a science name, but within our tribe a lot of our elders do use buffalo. And so we tend to use both.

Taylor Wilson:

And Stephanie, I want to just turn back the clock and give some historical context here. Can you talk about what happened in the 1800s with the great slaughter of bison and really how this affected indigenous communities across the country? What happened there? And also what's the historical relationship between US government action and the indigenous relations with bison?

Stephanie Gillin:

With the return of the bison range to the CSKT tribes, we did a full remodel of our visitor center and there it's our story told by us. So we do talk about historical ancestors materials that we received from the bison, but then we also go into the railroad coming west. And so that was a pivotal time in history where it allowed hunters to get out west easier. They harvested bison in great numbers. And so that's kind of where our story comes in. We had tribal members from our Kalispel Nations, Atatitse. And he had a vision and he wanted to protect bison. And so he asked our leadership at the time if he could go get orphan bison calves and bring them back to our reservation to help revive their numbers. And he was not granted permission, but he passed his vision onto his son, Flatatitse. And so his son was granted permission and returned back to our reservation with six orphan bison calves.

From there, he raised the population and they roam freely within the reservation along the Flathead River. So that herd, which actually grew to around 700 under the care of Pablo and Allard. Well-known Pablo-Allard herd, was one of the largest in the nation at 700 animals. It's a crazy cycle of their numbers dwindling and our tribal members stepping in and then them having to be sold back. Well, ironically in the early 1900s as well, the national bison range was formed. So 18,000 acres were seeded by the government and they needed bison. So ancestors of bison who were originally here were returned back to the bison range.

Taylor Wilson:

Yeah. I want to talk more about the bison range, Stephanie, and some of these modern efforts. As we mentioned, you're Information and Education Program manager for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes. And the tribes manage the bison range. Can you tell us a little bit more about this and how your work fits into these efforts to restore the herds in the modern era?

Stephanie Gillin:

It's taken three decades to get to this moment in time, and it was not an easy path for our fellow members who started this process. And so it's only fitting, the bison range is located within the reservation. 18,000 acres within our 1.3 million acre reservation. And so we are managers, we have an amazing variety of wildlife within our reservation that we manage, and we work cooperatively with other agencies to co-manage those populations and look at numbers and for healthy populations. So I think we've proved ourselves within our natural resources being good managers, and historically we've been scientists, so having this returned back to the tribes... Now, it's tribal land surrounded by tribal land. So it gives us more opportunities to move forward.

Taylor Wilson:

How do you raise awareness of the importance of bison and some of these cultural links with indigenous communities that we've been talking about for the next generation?

Stephanie Gillin:

It took us 13 months to remodel our visitors center, our museum. And prior to us remodeling, the Fish and Wildlife Service didn't even acknowledge that they were on the reservation. They didn't use our tribal names for the animals. They used another tribe's name for the animals. So being able to go in and like a blank canvas, put our story on the wall and tell our story is been a huge thing for our community. I was born and raised on the reservation. We did not hear our history within our schools. And so being able to tell our story and having school groups come to read that story, or even having generations like mine that were not taught that, my parents generations who went to boarding schools to be taught their history and just giving you your identity, I guess, and that helps us to pass on to future generations. So it's so important to know your past and know your history. And even though it's not all great, we're still here.

One of our walls within the visitor's center, it's a wall that has a bison staring at you and a tribal woman staring at you. And so it's like they're looking into your souls and there's a braided sweetgrass between them. It's titled Our Long Histories Intertwined Like a Sweetgrass Braid. And Johnny's quote says, "A lot of hardships that the buffalo went through their lives are just so parallel with ours. The buffalo are strong, they've survived for all these years, and so have we. We're still going. Tell your children that we are up close to the buffalo and we have sang a song for him to honor him for his many years yet to come and for our children, for our great grandchildren and all the generations yet to come that they still have beauty around them."

Taylor Wilson:

I'd like to end this conversation on a personal note. We in the news media don't often hear the perspectives unfortunately of indigenous Americans enough. Can you help our listeners better understand why this issue is so important and what bison mean to you?

Stephanie Gillin:

This issue is super important, not only to me but to our tribal people. And as I talked about before, I think my path has found me. A lot of times I say bison remind me so much of Indian people. Like I talked about our aboriginal territory, it was 22 million acres. We are now forced on a reservation, which is 1.3 million acres. And so the same with bison, who depending on who you talk to, they were once 60 million on the landscape. And in our language, their Salish name is qweyqwiy, which means many black dots or many blacks, because our ancestors would look out and just see tiny black dots. In Kasonka, the name is Kamkukukut iyamo, and that translates to black cow. So tying our language and being reconnected to bison, not only as a food source but so many things.

Big Medicine was born and lived to be 26 years old. That was the time when homesteading was coming to the reservation. So the reservation was being opened up and it gave the spiritual hope that our tribal people needed just to hang on. So our connection with bison is there, just so similar. You'd look at our timeline and smallpox with us and brucellosis with bison. So many different things have happened in our past, but we're still here and we're stronger than ever. So I think the existence that we share, the connection that we have is super important to pass on to our future generations.

Taylor Wilson:

All right, beautiful place to end. Stephanie Gillin, thank you so much for giving us your perspective on all this and taking the time. Really appreciate it.

Stephanie Gillin:

Thank you. I appreciate it.

Taylor Wilson:

Thanks to our senior producer Shannon Rae Green for her production assistance. Our executive producer is Laura Beatty. Let us know what you think of this episode by sending a note to podcasts@usatoday.com. Thanks for listening. I'm Taylor Wilson and I'll be back tomorrow morning with another episode of The Excerpt.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: The Excerpt podcast: The return of the bison, a wildlife success story