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New documentary gives tribes' take on Bison Range

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National Bison Range

A bison grazes in the grass at the National Bison Range in this 2018 file photo.

PABLO — “A story about a history that is alive right now” drew about 150 guests to Salish Kootenai College Wednesday night. That line came early in the premiere screening of "In the Spirit of Atatice: The Untold Story of the National Bison Range," a new documentary about the national wildlife refuge within the Flathead Indian Reservation.

“It’s our story, it’s our history, all of ours,” narrator Roy Bigcrane told the audience beforehand, “so we should take pride.”

In a brisk 28 minutes, the documentary challenges conventional wisdom about the National Bison Range’s origins. Several histories credit Samuel Walking Coyote, a member of the Pend d’Oreille tribe, with driving a few bison calves over the Continental Divide to the Flathead Reservation in the 1870s, helping save the animals from extinction and starting what would become the Bison Range’s herd.

But according to the documentary, and the oral traditions it draws on, that idea actually began with another Pend d'Oreille Indian named Atatice, or Peregrine Falcon Robe. His son Latati, or Little Falcon Robe, carried it out, bringing bison calves on an arduous eastward trek to the reservation.

In 1884, Latati’s stepfather, Samuel Walking Coyote, sold the herd to Charles Allard and Michel Pablo in 1884 — without Latati's consent, the film explains. Some of those animals and their descendants would be purchased by the American Bison Society in 1909 and, the documentary argues, Walking Coyote unfairly received the credit.

Learning those details was a highlight for audience member Shoni Maulding of St. Ignatius. “For me it filled in a lot of missing pieces,” she said. “Tonight we’ve found out there was more to the story.”

"In the Spirit of Atatice" continues beyond the herd’s beginnings. It overlays the early 20th century with dark orchestral tones, describing how the 1904 allotment of reservation lands to non-Indian homesteaders devastated the tribes socially and economically, and how establishment of the Bison Range fragmented the reservation further. The Salish term for the range, it notes, translates as “fenced-in place.”

In 1971, the U.S. Court of Claims awarded the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes fair market value compensation for the land. But their interest in the land and its namesake animals remains strong, and since 1994 they’ve pursued both transfers and joint management arrangements with the U.S. Department of the Interior. All have fallen through for various reasons, and the past two decades have seen lawsuits, accusations of gross mismanagement by both the tribes and the Fish and Wildlife Service, and, the film points out, racism.

The Bison Range’s future still isn’t settled. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is preparing a new comprehensive conservation plan for the refuge, and that agency’s oversight of the refuge continues to draw criticism.

“This story is so rich, and the relationship with the bison is so rich, and there’s so many ironies in the story,” said tribal attorney Brian Upton, also one of the filmmakers, in a panel discussion afterward. “The whole goal for this film is to let people know more about” the tribes’ long-running quest for greater involvement with the Bison Range.

Director Daniel Glick described the film as a “way to try to do justice by the tribes.”

“The Bison Range would benefit tremendously from tribal involvement, as would the bison,” he predicted. After making the film, he said that “I’m so impressed with their competence in terms of stewardship of wildlife and the environment.”

"In the Spirit of Atatice: The Untold Story of the National Bison Range" will screen at the Wilma in Missoula on Thursday, Nov. 15, at 7 p.m.

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