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Back To Tradition, Bringing Home The Bison

A solitary bison in Yellowstone National Park.
Amelia Templeton
A solitary bison in Yellowstone National Park.

The tribes of the Umatilla reservation in northeast Oregon are hunting bison in southern Montana for the first time in more than a century. It's part of an effort to revive traditions that were once the heart of the tribe's religion and economy.

James Marsh drove 600 miles from his home to the edge of Yellowstone National Park. Early one morning, he leads six tribal hunters. They've brought some kids along and some Game Boys.

As of 9 a.m., Marsh has spotted only one bison. He says he hunts for food and to keep his heritage alive.

"My background, we come from chiefs," Marsh says. "Only a few people were selected to hunt buffalo. And they were usually the strong ones."

Three different tribes make up the Umatilla Confederation: the Cayuse, the Walla Walla, and the Umatilla. Marsh is a member of the Cayuse tribe. According to some oral histories, bands of Cayuse used to walk from Oregon to Montana and back, crossing the great divide.

"It's been a long time since buffalo that's actually been harvested by a tribal member was on the table," says Cody Nowland, one of the hunters. The practice of bison hunting was lost for several generations. Nowland learned a little about the tradition from his great-grandfather.

"His name was Aa'thon. I remember him telling some stories about it, back when his grandpa would go buffalo hunting. He'd be gone for months and months at a time," says Nowland.

By late morning, Nowland and Marsh have found their targets. But they're too far away to get a good shot. Eventually, Nowland takes off on foot to see how close he can get to the bison on the other side of the crest of a hill. Marsh's son Francis goes with him.

If the bison stay in Yellowstone, they're safe from hunters. But in the winter, the herd often searches for food outside the park, where they're fair game for tribes. The Umatilla tribes signed a treaty in 1855 that ceded more than 90 percent of their land to the U.S. government, but they reserved the right to keep hunting and fishing on it.

Eventually a bison starts to walk toward the hunters. Francis Marsh props his gun on a rock and shoots.

Once the animal is down, Francis says a prayer of thanks to the creator and to the bison. Nowland sings for the animal.

Hunter Francis Marsh reaches out to touch the bison he has shot to see if it is still alive.
Amelia Templeton / NPR
Hunter Francis Marsh reaches out to touch the bison he has shot to see if it is still alive.

"It's one of our traditional songs, it's our longhouse song," says Nowland. "My uncles, they always taught me if you make a kill, it doesn't matter what you sing just as long as you let it hear your voice."

The hunt is actually easy compared with gutting and skinning the bison.

The kids have ditched their Game Boys and are watching.

"It's natural, but it's gross watching it. Someday we'll be doing that," Dakota Sams says.

It takes the men almost four hours to quarter the bison. In the end, they neatly roll the hide and hang the meat on racks in the back of the truck. There's at least 600 pounds of it. Francis Marsh plans to give this bison away to family members and elders who can't make the trip to southern Montana themselves. It's a tradition, he says, to give away your first kill.

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