Big Medicine spent all of his life on the tribal homelands of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes. Now after his death, he’ll spend most of his time back there too, after a six-decade hiatus as one of the main attractions of the Montana Historical Society.
On Thursday, the Montana Historical Society Board of Trustees voted unanimously to return the mounted white bison, sacred to the tribes. The repatriation came as part of a request of the tribes to bring back Big Medicine based on his cultural religious significance.
After the vote, CSKT Tribal Chairman Tom McDonald was overcome with emotion.
“We are deeply appreciative,” he said, pausing a moment to regain his composure. “You can see it is emotional. We will treat this animal with the respect it deserves. We thank you and look forward to partnerships with the (historical) society and museum in the future.
“Thank you from the bottom of our hearts.”
The bison was seen as a miraculous, divine gift when he was born in 1933, becoming both a sacred living object in life, and cherished after his death. He was raised on the National Bison Range in the Flathead and died in 1959. However, before that, Montana Historical Society Director K. Ross Toole had asked the superintendent of the range if, upon Big Medicine’s death, his hide could be transferred to the society.
Since 1961, the mounted bison hide has been one of the largest attractions of the museum, which also includes one of the largest collections of art by Charles M. Russell. Since then, Big Medicine has been in a climate-controlled environment.
The transfer of Big Medicine back to the tribe will not happen immediately. The transfer will take place after the tribes establish a safe environment for his display. MTHS Director Molly Kruckenberg said that would likely take “about two years.”
She praised the process for the repatriation, saying it had happened because of conversations directly between the society and the tribal government.
“The Montana Historical Society regularly seeks advice and information from Montana’s tribes and this transfer of ownership reflects that positive relationship,” she said.
What has been a tourist attraction for in-state visitors as well as others, has always been more than that to tribal members who honor Big Medicine as having deep religious significance. Even during his time at the historical society, Kruckenberg said that people would pray, cry and even hold museum-approved smudge ceremonies to honor the animal’s spirit.
“Big Medicine is revered for his healing and protective powers, and deep spiritual lessons conveyed in ceremonies and song,” said a statement by the historical society.
“It’s not just about the history,” said Rick Eneas, CSKT executive officer. “As a people, the Salish and Kootenai are reclaiming our language and culture. One aspect of what Big Medicine symbolizes is what it looks like to hold on to the past and look to the future. We, as a people, are at a crossroads and have gone through some significant changes and lost a lot, but are creating a lot in the valley for the young tribal memories who don’t have a connection. A symbol like this allows us to feel proud of who we are and will help us understand who we can be in the future.”
Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan. To read the article as originally published, click here.