Back To Tradition, Tribe Brings Home The Bison For the first time in more than a century, Umatilla tribe members from northeast Oregon go on a hunt for bison. It's part of an effort to revive traditions that were once the heart of the tribe's religion and economy.
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Back To Tradition, Bringing Home The Bison

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Back To Tradition, Bringing Home The Bison

Back To Tradition, Bringing Home The Bison

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

Reporter Amelia Templeton traveled with them on the hunt.

AMELIA TEMPLETON: Its about nine in the morning, and James Marsh is frustrated. He drove 600 miles from his home to the edge of Yellowstone National Park, and so far hes only spotted one bison. Then he gets word of a small herd nearby.

Mr. JAMES MARSH (Lead Hunter): Sure, see you in a few. You know, I guess were heading over to the other side now.

TEMPLETON: Marsh is leading a team of six Umatilla hunters. Theyve brought some kids along, and some Game Boys. Marsh hunts for food and to keep his heritage alive.

Mr. MARSH: My background, we come from chiefs. Only a few people were selected to hunt buffalo. And they were usually the strong ones.

TEMPLETON: According to some oral histories, bands of Umatilla used to walk from Oregon to Montana and back, crossing the great divide.

Mr. CODY NOWLAND (Hunter): Its been a long time since buffalo thats actually been harvested by a tribal member was on the table.

TEMPLETON: Thats Cody Nowland, one of the hunters.

The practice of bison hunting was lost for several generations. Nowland's learned a little about the tradition from his great-grandfather.

Mr. NOWLAND: His name was Aa'thon. I remember him telling some stories about it, back when his grandpa would go buffalo hunting. Hed be gone for months and months at a time.

(Soundbite of crunching snow)

TEMPLETON: By late morning, Nowland and Marsh have found their targets. But theyre too far away to get a good shot. Eventually, Nowland takes off on foot to see how close he can get.

NOWLAND: Theyre just right on the other side of that crest of that little hill.

TEMPLETON: Another hunter, Francis Marsh, heads of with him toward the bison.

Mr. FRANCIS MARSH (Hunter): Its going to be a journey on out.

(Soundbite of a bison)

TEMPLETON: Thats the sound of a bison, grunting and digging in the snow. 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 theyre fair game for tribes.

The Umatilla tribes signed a treaty in 1855 that ceded more than 90 percent of their lands to the U.S. government. But they reserved the right to keep hunting and fishing on it.

Mr. F. MARSH: Oh, were heading out.

TEMPLETON: Eventually the bison start to walk toward Francis Marsh and the other hunters. He props his gun on a rock and shoots.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

(Soundbite of a cheer)

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

Mr. NOWLAND: (Singing Umatilla tribal song)

Its one of our traditional songs, It's our longhouse song. My uncles, they always taught me if you make a kill, it doesnt matter what you sing just as long as you let it hear your voice.

TEMPLETON: The hunt is actually easy compared to gutting and skinning the bison.

(Soundbite of scrapping)


TEMPLETON: The kids have ditched their Game Boys and are watching.

Mr. SAMS: Its natural but its gross watching it. Someday well be doing that.

TEMPLETON: It takes the men almost four hours to quarter the bison. In the end, they neatly roll the hide.

Mr. J. and F. MARSH and Mr. NOWLAND: One, two, three...

Mr. J. MARSH: We got it.

TEMPLETON: And hang the meat on racks in the back of the truck - theres at least 600 pounds of it. Francis Marsh plans to give this bison away to family members and elders who cant make the trip to southern Montana themselves. Its a tradition, he says, to give away your first kill.

For NPR News, Im Amelia Templeton.

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