Above Photo: Tara Sweeney at the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in May 2018. (Jason Dixon)
After Decades Of Bureaucratic Inertia
Restoration of the National Bison Range back to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of Montana is something we should all celebrate
Congratulations to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes on their recent acquisition of the National Bison Range.
In September 2018, I made my first official trip as assistant secretary-Indian affairs to the homelands of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. The purpose of the trip was to learn about the irrigation project on the Flathead Reservation. I learned about the challenges with rate setting, aging infrastructure, the differing needs of Indian and non-Indian water users, water rights, the history behind the project and the need for a fair and just water claims settlement with the federal government.
In addition to the irrigation project, I had the opportunity to visit the National Bison Range and learn about the cultural significance of the bison, and the range, to the Salish and Kootenai peoples.
Their perspective captivated me because their struggle resonates with many Natives across the country. Why we are who we are as Native peoples, our identities are so intertwined with the land, waters and animals that nourish our physical, mental, emotional and social well-being.
From my homelands, whether bowhead whale from the sea, broad white fish from freshwater, or caribou from the land, these animals provide our communal societies with sustenance, they bring us together, reinforce our cultural traditions and provide healing.
Upon my return to Washington, D.C. I spent the remainder of my time at the Department of the Interior working with my colleagues to fully understand the nuances of the history of Indian and federal ownership of the bison and the range, and I worked with many colleagues to identify a path forward to return both back to the Salish and Kootenai people.
For many administrations this issue remained unresolved. Plagued by bureaucracy and internal institutional resistance within the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, since 1908 this issue remained outstanding and unresolved.
A formidable ally within the Department of the Interior was my colleague, Associate Deputy Secretary James Cason. A veteran federal official from within the department, Cason helped the Indian Affairs team navigate this issue inside the building, just as Congress contemplated the return of the management of the National Bison Range back to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of Montana.
Many of us were pleased that Congress, led by Montana Senator Steve Daines, took action in December 2020 to restore Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of Montana’s tribal management of the National Bison Range through the Consolidated Appropriations Act 2021, Division DD, “Montana Water Rights Protection Act.”
On the heels of enactment, in January 2021 Secretary David Bernhardt signed Secretarial Order 3390 directing the transfer of 18,000+ acres from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the agency of record to hold this land in trust for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. (See background here.)
Although the land transfer was enacted on December 27, 2020, and despite months of bureaucratic delay and uncertainty, the Federal Register finally issued the formal notice in June 2021.
This restoration of land is a meaningful and significant acknowledgement and respect for the physical, mental, emotional and social sustenance that makes you uniquely Salish and Kootenai. Future generations of tribal members to come will learn about the hard work and persistent effort that went into this endeavor. I will forever remember my time within the Salish and Kootenai homelands and the lasting impression made by their communities and leadership when I served as assistant secretary for Indian affairs. Congratulations to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of Montana on this historic return of land and resources.