Almost two centuries ago, the U.S. government and white hunters began slaughtering bison on the Great Plains. They pushed the animals close to extinction. But now, a wealthy nonprofit is trying to bring them back to the prairies by stitching together a massive, privately funded national park in northeastern Montana.
Many local ranchers loathe the idea, but local tribal councils say this return of bison is a long time coming.
From our Mountain West News Bureau, Nate Hegyi reports in the last of our series about building the next Yellowstone.
This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Listen to the full documentary here.
PARTS: How Big Money Is Building A New Kind Of National Park | A Privately-Funded Park For The People | Save The Cowboy, Stop The American Prairie Reserve | A Hunter's Paradise | The Bison Is A Symbol Of God
It's late July. Grasses are tall and green and folks are all gathered near the town of Lodge Pole, on Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, for a powwow. A thunderstorm is building in the distance and the air is thick with humidity. Kids are running around and generators hum from the backs of trailers.
I grab a greasy hamburger from a food stand and strike up a conversation with its cook, Hannah Has Eagle. She's Nakoda and says she'd much rather be serving hamburgers made from bison than-beef. It's leaner and healthier, she says. That's a big reason why she's excited about the reserve bringing back so many bison.
"It's probably a blessing to have all those buffalo," Has Eagle says. "It's not probably, it is."
That's because for centuries, plains tribes relied on the animals for everything. Bison hides, for example, are so thick and warm that heat barely escapes, even in the dead of winter. So they were tanned and transformed into clothes and teepee covers. Bison bladders were used to haul water. Dung could be used as fuel for fires. Hooves were boiled into glue.
So when the U.S. government and white hunters began mass slaughtering of bison in the 19th century, it was like they were tearing out the tribes' heart. Kenneth Tuffy Helgeson is Nakoda. He remembers his grandfather telling him why the bison were so important to his people.
"They knew if they took away our main food source — our main symbol of God — that we would be rendered to literally nothing," he says.
Helgeson ranches on the reservation. Today he's wearing a crisp white shirt, flat-brimmed hat and blue jeans. He says the stories of bison and tribes mirror each other. After the slaughter, wild bison were largely confined to a single national park: Yellowstone.
"At the same time," he says, "Indians were put on the reservation in their own corrals. And our populations dwindled."
Americans and Canadians tried to breed bison and cattle together to create a new kind of meat. Some intrepid ranchers raised domestic bison herds on farms. Meanwhile, Helgeson's family and many others were encouraged to cultivate the land like the white settlers did.
"We were given a plow and a horse and a bit and a bridle and a few head of cows to make a life for ourselves," he says. "The words they used in those days was to assimilate the Indian. To take away their culture. To give them a new culture."
The culture of ranching. That culture has held power over the West for more than 150 years. It imbued America with a love affair for the cowboy. It gave us John Wayne, bolo ties and the Marlboro Man.
Helgeson feels for the local ranching community with American Prairie Reserve purchasing many of their spreads. Cattlemen are losing their neighbors and their way of life.
But Helgeson also understands why some folks on the reservation don't have a lot of sympathy for them.
"A person may think you're going to get your comeuppance and we're going to settle up and you're going to feel what we felt," Helgeson says.
Not everyone feels that way. There are a lot of different opinions about American Prairie Reserve on the reservation. But the fact is, the tribes are gaining a crucial piece of their culture back. American Prairie's wild herd of bison will eventually be the largest wild herd in North America.
Not that the tribes are getting their traditional lands back. This patchwork of public and private lands adjacent to the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation will be managed to more closely resemble what those lands used to be, and all they provided the tribes. But they will still be owned, in essence, by white settlers and the government. This doesn't bother Helgeson.
"You know, I believe, my friend, in our old songs, our old teachings, there's one song that our people sing. And it says, 'My friend, don't be foolish. The only thing that lives forever is the earth.'"
"We can fight over land, we can fight over dirt, we can fight over all these things," Helgeson continues. "But really all you ever have is what's on your shoes. That's the only dirt that you'll ever own. The only ground that you'll ever own is on your shoes. And that will fall off, too."
With that, Helgeson shakes my hand and walks back to the powwow.
He gave me a lot to think about. American Prairie's mission to save some of the last grasslands in the world comes with casualties. But change always does, and whether it's good or bad depends on your story and your relationship with this land.
Later, I camp in the Missouri River Breaks. There's a quote that keeps rolling around in my mind. It's from the end of a book, Rewilding the West, by the Montana writer Richard Manning. He writes, "eventually, the Breaks will break us, teach us to live within their rules."
This a tough country and people will love it in their own way. That won't change.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado, and the O'Connor Center For the Rocky Mountain West in Missoula, Montana. It was supported by the Pulitzer Center.