TWO MEDICINE RIVER – You can care or not, but there’s hope and laughter on the Blackfeet Reservation.
You could hear it in the excited chatter at the river-bottom Buffalo Calf Winter Ranch last weekend.
You could smell it in the autumn river-bottom must that still had a hint of summer.
Dehlyn Franks provided visual proof.
Already smeared with blood from head to lower torso, the Heart Butte sophomore grabbed the hide of a yearling bison bull he’d just helped skin and flung it over his shoulders, gory side in.
The fearsome picture it presented wasn’t enough for Chelsea Bullshoe.
With glee the eighth-grader swiped more blood off the carcass suspended from the hoist on a flatbed pickup and painted Franks’ face with it.
It was all in good fun at the end of an unseasonably warm Nov. 5 day, when the temperature pushed 70 and, down here at least, the wind was but a whisper.
But there was something more to it. Instead of cluck-clucking the horseplay, the elders in charge of this small party of “buffalo hunters” watched smiling, and at least one grabbed his camera.
“I feel so good in my spirit and my mind and my body,” said Betty Cooper, a Blackfeet elder and director of the 21st Century Community Learning program at Heart Butte School.
It was the second year Cooper orchestrated the sixth-grade Heart Butte buffalo hunt, which this time attracted students from fifth to 10th grades. Cooper turned over the hunt and butchering to Sheldon Carlson, the bison manager for the Blackfeet, and its interpretation over to Ervin Carlson, Sheldon’s first cousin and the tribe’s Buffalo Restoration Project manager.
That the hunt took place on National Bison Day was serendipitous, but it came in a year of two momentous events for the mighty beasts that once roamed these plains by the millions.
In April, 88 buffalo calves, all descendants of one of the last herds of bison in these foothills, were unloaded at this ranch a dozen miles east of Highway 89. They’d come from Elk Island National Park near Edmonton, Alberta, to their ancestral homeland.
In May, Congress passed and President Obama signed a bill that made the bison our national mammal, an act made official on Nov. 3 at Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota.
“This is a very historical time, and this land we’re on, in the summertime the people gathered for Sun Dances,” Cooper said. “They called them the Okan, which is really the Medicine Lodge.”
Blackfeet from the south – now Montana – and those from the north (Canada) came together at the foot of Rising Wolf Mountain near East Glacier for Okans.
“They had sun dances on each side of the river, then they joined together. That’s where the name came from – Two Medicine,” Cooper said. “So we’re on the historical Two Medicine River.”
It’s called a sixth-grade hunt, but the half-dozen students who showed up early Saturday at Heart Butte School for the 30-mile bus ride ranged from fifth grade to 10th.
The hunt was symbolic. For safety’s sake, Quanah Jackson, father of sixth-grader Natoyi Kipp Jackson, rode shotgun in the ranch pickup as Sheldon Carlson drove to a cluster of buffalo south of the river bridge, leaving the students behind. There Carlson picked out the yearling bull and downed him with a rifle shot from the cab. After cutting the throat the two men attached the young buffalo to the hoist and loaded him on the truck.
Earlier, Cooper sent the students into the brush to gather dry wood for a fire. They came back with three intact buffalo skulls they set near the fire ring. In due time they had smoke, then a crackling flame.
Bullshoe, who was joined by her parents Clifton and Thomalita later in the morning, is 13 years old. She has belonged to the Blackfoot Chickadee Society since she was 2.
“It’s a society that you start out as a little kid, then you go until you’re 14 years old,” she explained. “It teaches you respect and how to clean up after yourself and how you get involved with the ceremonial stuff and your culture.”
Kaedin Skunk Cap, 11, passed the smudge bundle around the fire circle, as students, parents and teachers took turns cloaking themselves in the fragrant smoke of sage, sweet pine and copal, an aromatic tree resin from the American Southwest and Mexico.
Next Cooper donned a buffalo robe, then invited the others in turn to try it on. Even on a warm day, it was an energizing exercise.
Not only were robes good to wear on frigid days, they lined willow backrests and luxurious bedding.
“One would be down with the hair up and then another would be with the hair down, so that you could cover up with it. So this was how we survived those bitter cold winters,” Cooper explained.
Finally, she pulled from her knapsack two folded prints of cloth.
“Today we’re going to take a buffalo’s life,” she said. “So this print I want it to go around. I’m going to smudge it and then you need to pray with it and pass it on to the next person. You can offer any prayers that you want to yourself, your family or community.”
Afterward, Skunk Cap, a sixth-grader, led the students into a grove of cottonwoods, where the prayer cloths were tied onto different trees.
This is a land imprinted by time, geologic and otherwise.
Above and below the ranch are cliffs the Blackfeet used for pishkuns, or buffalo jumps, before and after they got the horse. On a four-wheeler Sheldon Carlson drove the band of bison down from an open bench across the river lined with rock walls that channeled hordes of animals to the cliffs and their deaths – a safer and more productive way to hunt than by horse, bow and arrow, Andrew Gussmann pointed out.
Gussmann came to America from his native Poland in the late 1990s and landed in Browning where he met his wife-to-be, Marie.
He’s a professional tanner who loaded up the fresh hide that Franks wrapped himself in and took it home. When time allows, sometime after the first of the year, he’ll welcome the students who took part in the hunt into his shop outside of Browning to tan it using the brains of the yearling bull.
It’ll likely end up on a wall in the Heart Butte School, a hanging lesson and memento to this year’s hunt.
The 10,000 acres of buffalo ranch on the Two Medicine is winter pasture for the tribal herd that has grown from 40 to roughly 540 in less than 10 years since Ervin Carlson took the reins. Throw in the calves that came from Canada being kept closer to Browning at the sprawling Smith Ranch and you have a number close to the 635 that William T. Hornaday estimated remained on the western plains in 1886, three years after the last buffalo hunt.
Hornaday, chief taxidermist of the Smithsonian’s U.S. National Museum, counted nearly half of the survivors in the Missouri Breaks of Montana. He’d come west to tally the damage wrought by professional hide hunters whose ranks grew to the thousands in the decades following the Civil War.
With the buffalo went a way of life for the Blackfeet and many other tribes.
“They were our lifeline,” Clifton Bullshoe said as the students waited for the hunters to return. “We used 'em for everything.”
The Blackfeet and 62 other tribes who belong to the Intertribal Buffalo Council (ITBC) are working to bring the animals back for economic and culture reasons, said Carlson, who’s president of the ITBC.
“It’s part of our culture that we lost for awhile,” he said. “Then a lot of our kids anymore just live in town. People used to do their own harvesting of wild game and even, I guess, cattle. That’s kind of a big part of the program here, working with the schools like Betty’s program and the high school in Browning, that these kids can come out and learn about a big part of their culture that’s been gone for so long, and that’s harvesting a buffalo and knowing this is what we used to survive on as Indian people.”
Carlson would like to see the herd reach 1,000, so the tribe can feed the hungry on the reservation and those suffering from diabetes and other diseases. Requests are growing but at first they were few and far between.
“People would say, ‘I don’t eat buffalo meat,’ but it all goes back to they’ve been gone so long and our diets have been changed,” said Carlson. “Even myself, I like that big marbled beef steak.”
Sheldon Carlson had an entourage waiting for him when he and Jackson drove back with their kill.
The students posed for group shots above, below and alongside the dead bull on the flatbed. When the parties got to the butchering area, they jumped into the skinning and cleaning process. One cut out the tongue. Others joined Sheldon with knives to carefully strip back the hide and remove the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys and other entrails.
Rank as it got to be – “last year some of them threw up,” Cooper noted – all were game to take nibbles or full-fledged bites from the raw liver and kidney.
“It means that it’s a new day and we’re going to have a good winter,” said Skunk Cap, who’s 11. “It’s important because I could bring food to my grandma or bring some offerings to the saving spirits.”
“Honestly, I haven’t done this before and it was pretty fun washing stuff out and learning about the things they did with the organs and stuff,” said Wyatt Whitcomb, the youngest of the group as a fifth-grader. “I thought they just left them for the dogs and all that, but they’re pretty recyclable.”
“Today was fun. It was good,” Chelsea Bullshoe said. “I think this is really good for the youth to learn, how to skin it, how to clean it out.”
It was an experience Bullshoe sees herself passing on to her own children.
That’s music to Cooper’s ears. She hopes some day that one of these students will be standing in her shoes, surrounded by the blood, guts, hope and laughter with their own classroom on the Two Medicine.
Children of Heart Butte and Blackfeet Reservation live in an amazing outdoor classroom, something Cooper said she likes to stress in the 21st Century Community Learning program.
“And to put our culture with it. ... That’s what happened today,” she said. “It’s so beautiful.”