The unemployment rate on Montana's Fort Peck Indian reservation can reach 70%, with scant signs of ways to turn around the local economy. Still, the recent reintroduction of the pure breed of bison can, in tangible ways and otherwise, means somet
WOLF POINT - There is an end-of-the-world feeling along the two main streets in Wolf Point, a town of 2,600 at the heart of the Fort Peck Indian reservation in the northern state of Montana. A few mini-casinos and bars, including the Stockmans 220 Club and the Water Hole 1, where pale faces and Native Americans drown their boredom in rambling, alcohol-heavy conversations.
The train station feels besides-the-point as it depends on only two passing trains, one going West at 11:41 a.m., the other going East at 4:33 p.m. The many freight trains that stretch over kilometers don't ever stop here. In front of the Albertsons supermarket, unemployed youths ask for money to buy cans of beer.
Fifty-eight year-old Robert Magnan is aware of these problems. As director of the Hunting and Fishing Department, he is in charge of the Fort Peck reservation, which stretches across a million hectares of sloping hills and semi-arid steppes irrigated by the generous Missouri River.
The blood of this land runs in his veins. Born from a Sioux father and an Assiniboine mother, Robert Magnan turned this past April 19 into a sort of reparation from history. After long years of struggle, he managed to reintroduce the Yellowstone wild bison into Fort Peck. "These are the last bisons with perfect genes," he says, his hair braided in Sioux fashion. "Reintroducing them means reconnecting with our culture, which has been diluted."
A planned massacre
In the 19th century, there were tens of millions of bison in America. Montana was their favorite area. But over-hunting by Europeans and Native American tribes, droughts, sicknesses and a war of resources for bovine and ovine farms threatened the bison with extinction.
In 1873, President Ulysses Grant's Secretary of Interior Columbus Delano contributed to its quasi-extinction. Reckoning that Native American tribes were an obstacle for settlers in the Far West, he declared "The civilization of the Indian is impossible while the buffalo remains upon the plains." The American government encouraged the massacre, distributing free ammunition to hunters. Eradicating the bison was supposed to help "subjugate the Indian tribes by starving them and destroying the staple of their bartering system."
The spread of rail lines also accelerated the process by facilitating the transportation of skins and leathers towards the American East and Europe. In 1884, there was no sign of the bison in Montana. The only survivors took refuge in the Yellowstone National Park, which includes parts of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.
Native American history is still very much alive in Robert Magnan's mind. In his pick-up, we try to pronounce the word ‘bison" like Kevin Costner's does in Dance with the wolves: "Tatanka." The Hunting and Fishing department director doesn't understand at first, but he then corrects us: "Ah, Tatanka," he says, clearing his throat to pronounce the last syllable correctly.
A long, strange trek
Today, Fort Peck has 64 Yellowstone bison with a 4,000 hectare living space. Even if Montana is the animal's land of origin, Magnan's project hasn't made everybody happy.
The State legislature voted nine projects to outlaw reintroducing the Yellowstone bison, to no avail. The representatives feared that the Native American tribes would mismanage the arrival of the wild bison and that sicknesses like brucellosis would come with them. Robert Magnan and his colleagues anticipated the problem: a hundred of the beasts were placed in quarantine for five years and tested every six months to make sure they weren't sick.
Today, the Fort Peck bison are exceptionally placed in a pen. Some fences need mending, and the Native American authorities don't want to let the animal wander. Robert Magnan is jubilant: "The bison took such good care of our ancestors, now it's our turn to help them return to their habitat, in Montana." They quickly adapted: one female bison gave birth barely 26 days after the 900-kilometer trek from Yellowstone to Wolf Point.
Bison are Robert Magnan's passion. Bison live to thirty and don't impoverish the soil, he points out. They are sometimes mischievous, sometimes grumpy. In Fort Peck, before the arrival of the Yellowstone bison, there were already some captive-bred ones, as there are in the approximately 90 ranches in Montana. Though less "pure" genetically, the tribes respect these animals just as much.
The Sioux - also called the Tatanka Oyate, or bison nation - are especially sensitive to this topic. "These aren't domesticated animals - but we never put the cattle bison and the Yellowstone ones together," says Robert Magnan.
From his pick-up, he flushes out quail hidden in the bushes. His daily patrols in the reservation that start at sunrise sometimes put him face to face with a lynx. The bison appear after 20 minutes on a rocky trail. The place is magical. The grey-blue sky seems to merge with the earth. The Hunting and Fishing department director points to an Echinacea, a plant that bison love and that Native Americans use for medicinal purposes for the immune system.
There are no males in sight. "They are solitary," says Magnan. "Except in the mating season, in July and August." On top of Windy Hills, seven of them finally appear on a hillock. "This is where I'll come tomorrow at 5 a.m."
Robert Magnan hunts bison, but not without some soul-searching: he worships the animal. Before killing it with one clear shot behind the ear, he prays for the sacrifice. Once the bison is dead, it is out of the question to leave the skinned carcass to rot in the plains, as the white hunters of the 19th century did. Here, everything is used: bones, skin, meat. The skull becomes an object to worship.
The sacrifice serves a noble cause. The bison meat will be served at the end of a "Sun Dance," a four-day spiritual dance during which members of the Fort Peck tribes neither eat nor drink. The ceremony connects the Native Americans to the creator. The heart of the sacrificed animal is placed at the foot of a tree cut down for the occasion.
"For the ritual, a string is attached to a tree and to the dancers' chests until their skin rips. It's a way of begging the creator to remove the pain from our body," says Magnan.
Difficult traditions to follow
His father-in-law, a Vietnam War veteran, is the chief of the Assiniboine community, also called the "Stone Cookers' because of their habit of throwing burning stones into water to make it boil. He is in charge of the name attribution ceremony. "If a Native American doesn't have a name specific to our culture, his ancestors won't be able to call him when he dies," Magnan explains. "When someone dies, their spirit travels for four days, and then festivities are organized to send them above. It's only after this that the body is put into the earth, our mother."
The beauty of the landscapes doesn't hide the precariousness of the seven communities within the Sioux and Assiniboine tribes. Forty percent of their members are diabetic. Endowed with its own government (the Tribal Council), the reservation has some 11,000 members, only 4,000 of which live on the Fort Peck territory, which also includes 30% non-Native Americans. Unemployment is endemic, sometimes touching 70%.
Yet the area is rich with water, gas and oil. "So far, oil companies aren't very interested because they pay 22% taxes split between the State of Montana and the Fort Peck reservation," says Robert Magnan. "We are negotiating to lower that rate to 12%. The Fort Peck tribes receive 19% of the royalties on the wells that are already being used."
Read more from Le Temps in French.
Photo - SeattleRay