After more than 60 years, Big Medicine is coming home.
The Montana Historical Society’s board of trustees voted unanimously Thursday to return ownership to the Confederate Salish Kootenai Tribe of the great mounted white buffalo that has been a part of Helena’s museum since 1961.
The tribe demanded the return of the buffalo, saying it was taken from their National Bison Range land on the Flathead Indian Reservation.
Several members of the tribe attended Thursday’s board meeting.
Tom McDonald, chairman of the CSKT tribe, told the board after the vote that the tribe was deeply grateful and paused during his comments.
“You can see it’s moving,” he said. “We will treat this animal with the respect it deserves.”
Others spoke to the council before the vote.
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“Make us happy today, make us happy,” said Steven Small Salmon, a Pend d’Oreille Tribe elder who said he saw Big Medicine on the reservation as a child. “We want it back.”
CSKT tribal council member Martin Charlo said he wanted to make sure the council knew how spiritual these things were, adding that he remembered elders talking about going to the playground. bison, to pray and to spend time with Big Medicine.
“Every time I saw it, it was very powerful,” he said.
“It’s fine where it’s at right now, but we’re going to show it and tell our story the best we can,” Charlo said.
Shane Morigeau, a Democratic state senator and deputy chief executive of CSKT, said the tribe would be mindful of the care taken to preserve Big Medicine.
He said if the council would be kind enough to return Big Medicine, the tribe would make sure he was in a safe place. He noted that the tribe will build a new cultural center.
Rick Eneas, CSKT’s general manager, said it’s not just about the story.
“As a people, the Salish and Kootenai are reclaiming our language and our culture. Part of what Big Medicine symbolizes is what it feels like to cling to the past and look to the future,” said- he declared.
Vernon Finley, director of Kootenai’s cultural committee, said people call Big Medicine the chief chef. He said Big Medicine, who had a “black hat” and was not a true albino, was a symbolic part of adjusting to the world as it is.
The motion to transfer ownership was made by former state attorney general Tim Fox, and it was followed by little discussion.
Board Member Ken Robison asked if a holographic (3-dimensional) image of Big Medicine could be displayed prominently at the new Montana Heritage Center currently under construction.
Molly Kruckenberg, director of the historical society, said she was delighted to see ownership of Big Medicine transferred to CSKT.
She said that as part of the deal, the historical society will retain possession of Big Medicine until the tribes have a safe environment in which it can be displayed.
“This is not a request for repatriation under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act; instead, this decision stems from government-to-government discussions,” Kruckenberg said in an email.
“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.
Big Medicine was born in 1933, according to the Montana Historical Society website.
“The birth was the crowning achievement of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ efforts to reclaim a bison population for their reservation,” the website notes.
In the early 1950s, the Montana Historical Society made arrangements to ensure that upon his death, Big Medicine would be transferred to the state museum and permanently preserved. Because he had some pigmentation — blue eyes, tan hooves, and a brown bun — Big Medicine was a white buff rather than a pure albino, the website says. At its peak, it weighed 1,900 pounds, stood 6 feet tall at the hump, and measured 12 feet from the tip of its nose to the tip of its tail.
He spent his life on the National Bison Range and died in 1959. Taxidermy was completed in 1961 and Big Medicine was transferred to the Montana Historical Society.
Morigeau said it will likely take about two years before Big Medicine is relocated, once the new visitor center is built on the bison range.
“We only want to move him once,” Morigeau said, adding that Big Medicine is in surprisingly good shape, considering his age.
He said there would be a celebration once the move was made.
“He just has tremendous cultural significance to us,” Morigeau said, thanking the Montana Historical Society for realizing it.
“It’s a great responsibility to take care of him,” he said, adding that while Big Medicine’s physical body remains in Helena for the time being, “his spirit is coming home today.”
Associate Editor Phil Drake can be reached at 406-231-9021.