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Northwest tribes resume sacred ritual: Hunting bison

Knee deep in snow, Francis Marsh crouched behind a boulder and peered through the rifle scope at his target 40 yards away. He breathed in deeply to calm his racing heart.
Francis Marsh, Cody Nowland
Francis Marsh, left, and Cody Nowland of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Pendleton, Ore., stand with a bison shot and killed by Marsh's father Jim Marsh on Feb. 13, 2011, near Gardiner, Mont. Ted S. Warren / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Knee deep in snow, Francis Marsh crouched behind a boulder and peered through the rifle scope at his target 40 yards away. He breathed in deeply to calm his racing heart.

Picturesque mountain peaks rose behind him. The sunlight glittered off the snow, and all was quiet and still.

Ever so slowly, he exhaled, waited, then pulled the trigger.

The bison dropped to its big belly. Francis gasped for air — and with that shot became one of the first members of an Oregon Indian tribe to hunt buffalo in more than a century.

Sacred ritual
For years, Jim Marsh — Francis' father — had heard stories about his great-grandmother's buffalo-hide teepee, the last of its kind in their family. He'd seen photos of it, but buffalo were a thing of the past.

The Cayuse Indians once traveled hundreds of miles on horseback to hunt bison, a lean meat rich in protein and high in cultural significance. Those hunts ended in the late 1800s, as federal agents restricted travel from their reservation on the Columbia River plateau and the decimated bison herds were largely confined to Yellowstone National Park.

Jim Marsh's great-grandfather was the last family member to travel across the Rocky Mountains to hunt bison.

But in 2006, the state of Montana gave permission to the Nez Perce of Idaho and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes of northwest Montana to hunt bison on federal lands outside Yellowstone.

Hunting is illegal in the park, but during harsh winters, bison migrate to lower elevations outside the park in search of food. The tribes' 1855 treaties with the federal government grant them the right to hunt on traditional hunting grounds on open, unclaimed land, such as the current day Gallatin National Forest bordering the park.

Marsh soon accompanied Nez Perce relatives on a hunt, tagging along to watch and help. The significance of a tradition long lost to him immediately struck home.

The Cayuse, Walla Walla and Umatilla tribes also have an 1855 treaty that relegated them to the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Pendleton, Ore., but also guaranteed hunting rights on aboriginal lands. Marsh pushed the tribe's wildlife program to seek access, prodding them when paperwork lay dormant. He ran for and won election to the Fish and Wildlife Commission.

"Our tribe has been hunting buffalo for centuries. It's one of our traditional foods. They were just returning from buffalo country before the treaty was signed," Marsh said, recalling the Indian chiefs who cited buffalo more than a dozen times in their treaty. "It was important to me to try to return that tradition to my people."

Montana granted permission last fall after months of negotiations — and to the Shoshone-Bannock of Idaho as well — and the tribe issued permits for hunts beginning in January.

'You take the shot'
The buffalo buried its head in the snow, safely digging for grass in a no-hunting zone behind a U.S. Forest Service compound.

Twenty minutes earlier, the hunters had excitedly bounded out of their pickups to snap photos. Now they were forced to acknowledge that this big bull wasn't going anywhere.

Marsh gathered his team: Francis, his 23-year-old son, Joe Ball, David Sams and his nephew, Chuck Sams, and Cody Nowland. All were seasoned hunters of deer, elk, sheep and cougar. None had ever shot a bison.

"We'll just keep an eye on him," Marsh told them. It wasn't yet 8 a.m.

The crew drove back down the snow-covered road and over the hill, where a herd of bison slept and grazed several hundred yards away. The hunters climbed out of the trucks and assessed the scene. And waited.

From this vantage point, the buffalo were too far away through deep snow.

Jim Currey, tribal game officer, pointed to a closed road. A legal shot could be made from beyond the gate, where two bulls stood between the herd and the hunters.

They waited some more. Finally, at 11:30 a.m., Marsh turned to his son.

"It's yours," he said, smiling at Francis. "You take the shot."

Francis grabbed his gun and walked toward the herd with a Nez Perce hunter also in the area. Rounding the corner, they found the bulls had made it easy. They were right there.

"It's almost like those buffalo gave themselves up so we wouldn't go after their children and their wives — like people, basically," Francis said later. "As soon as he dropped, my heart dropped."

He fired another shot, and the Nez Perce at his side fired on the other bull. Nowland let out a yell. After firing a third time to ensure the animal was finished, Francis and Nowland men stood at its side for a prayer and song.

"This was a good, clean kill today. Thank you for all of us being out here today for this historic moment for our people," intoned Nowland.

All six men and wildlife program manager Carl Scheeler, who helped get the hunts approved, pitched in for the grueling task of butchering and skinning the animal. They carved with knives, sharpening and resharpening them. Three boys with the hunting party played in the snow, stopping every so often to watch the men at work.

Four hours later, the meat was loaded on the truck. Francis planned to give away much of it to family members and elders who no longer hunt, as well as to provide for ceremonial observances in the longhouse.

"As a native, that shows respect to the animal, to give a lot of it away. Especially with a first kill," he said. "Karma comes around."

'An honor'
After a celebratory dinner, the hunters headed out the next morning to the Forest Service compound, where the big bull that had grazed in safety now wandered in an open field across the road.

Jim Marsh immediately jumped out of his truck, pushed several feet through deep snow and took aim. The bison took several shots to go down, and Francis hiked to the animal to deliver one final shot.

Nowland let out another yell. The others gathered to tie up ropes to tow it closer to the road and then began field dressing this second bison of the hunt. Nearby, the three boys built a "snow buffalo."

Marsh quietly stepped away to put on his overalls and gather his knives. He thought of his wife, who died several years ago, and younger son Ryan, 18, who will hunt next year.

"I am 47 years old. For me to come up here now and exercise my treaty right is an honor," he said. "It's nothing like the past. They traveled on horseback and on foot, lived in teepees in the cold. We've got rigs and high-tech equipment. But for me and my son to come up here as Cayuse, like our ancestors, it's a great honor."