Big Medicine has spent his entire life on the tribal lands of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. Now, after his death, he will also spend most of his time there, after a six-decade hiatus as one of the main attractions of the Montana Historical Society.
On Thursday, the Montana Historical Society board voted unanimously to make the mounted white bison sacred to the tribes. The repatriation came as part of a request from the tribes to bring Big Medicine back based on its cultural religious significance.
After the vote, CSKT Tribe President Tom McDonald was overwhelmed with emotion.
“We are deeply grateful,” he said, pausing for a moment to regain his composure. “You can see it’s moving. 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 heart.”
The bison was considered a miraculous divine gift when it was born in 1933, becoming both a sacred living object in life and cherished after 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 asked the range superintendent if, upon Big’s death Medicine, his skin could be transferred to society.
Since 1961, the mounted bison hide has been one of the biggest attractions at the museum, which also includes one of Charles M. Russell’s largest art collections. Since then, Big Medicine has been in an air-conditioned environment.
Big Medicine’s transfer to the tribe will not happen immediately. The transfer will take place after the tribes have established a safe environment for its display. MTHS director Molly Kruckenberg said it would likely take “about two years”.
She praised the repatriation process, saying it happened because of direct conversations between the company and the tribal government.
“The Montana Historical Society routinely requests advice and information from the tribes of Montana and this transfer of ownership reflects that positive relationship,” she said.
What has been a tourist attraction for visitors to the state as well as others, has always been more than that for tribal members who honor Big Medicine as having deep religious significance. Even while at the historical society, Kruckenberg said people were praying, crying and even holding museum-approved smudging ceremonies to honor the animal’s spirit.
“Big Medicine is revered for its healing and protective powers, and its profound spiritual lessons passed down in ceremonies and chanting,” a statement from the historical society said.
“It’s not just about the story,” said CSKT chief executive Rick Eneas. “As a people, the Salish and Kootenai are reclaiming our language and our culture. One aspect of what Big Medicine symbolizes is what it feels like to cling to the past and look to the future. We as a people are at a crossroads and have gone through significant change and lost a lot, but are creating a lot in the valley for young tribal memories that have no connection. A symbol like this allows us to be proud of who we are and will help us understand who we can be in the future.
Darrell Ehrlick is the editor of the Daily Montanan. To read the article as it was originally published, Click here.