Project from MSU, Fort Peck Tribes aims to connect people and bison

When Suzanne Turnbull of Poplar, Montana, talks about bison, she uses words like connection and healing.

Bison, she says, are inherently tied to the culture of the Sioux and Assiniboine people on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, which is why they call themselves “the buffalo people.”

“We refer to (buffalo) as our relatives as a way to honor them, and to have our people feel closer to wildlife and the land,” Turnbull said.

The connection between bison and Native Americans is the foundation of a project coming to life on the reservation. Montana State University and the Fort Peck Tribes have partnered to create an interactive, four-mile prayer path through the Turtle Mound Buffalo Ranch.

Its official name will be the Tata’ga Baha Omaskaskan Buffalo Trail.

Planning for the project has been in the works for years, but it got a boost in June when the Fort Peck Tribes received a $50,000 grant from Montana State Parks. That money, along with a grant from the Butler Foundation, makes it possible for the tribes to break ground on the trail this month.

The 15,000 acre ranch is 25 miles northeast of Poplar and home to nearly 400 genetically-pure bison. The presence of bison there has been controversial among ranchers, who worry bison will contaminate their cattle with disease.

However, the tribes built a $500,000 quarantine facility and the National Park Service signed off on a plan to move Yellowstone bison to the reservation last year.

Turnbull, Trio director at Fort Peck Community College, is a member of the Pte Group, a grassroots organization that advocates for bison on the reservation. Pte means female bison in Dakota.

“Bison kept my ancestors alive. It’s our turn to take care of them,” Turnbull said.

She said the prayer path will be circular to represent the importance of cycles in Native culture. It’ll wind through a field that contains native plants and grasses that are used as traditional medicines. Turbull said she envisions the path being a place for meditation, healing and reflection.

One member of the Pte Group wanted the project to do more.

Lois Red Elk, a Sioux poet, first pitched the idea of including art installations on the buffalo ranch, Turnbull said. The so-called “story poles” will be installed along the trail to engage people in Native culture.

These installations require design expertise. MSU Architecture Professor Mike Everts and some of his students got involved to realize the vision. They started the design process by organizing focus groups with people on the reservation.

Everts said the idea to make the story poles interactive came from a high school student.

Each pole will have a different use. For example, the Woven Willow Story Pole will be built by placing pucks on a flexible structure that’ll serve as a rubbing post for bison. The pucks are designed to capture bison fur, so trail users will be able to collect traces of the bison along their walk.

Another story pole, called the Vision Tower, will be designed for children to play while their parent or grandparent rests. The goal is to have elders and young people connect, while also connecting them to the land and wildlife.

Everts and his students will create five story poles in total. Work is ongoing.

Everts said the project wouldn’t be possible without Elizabeth Bird, a grant specialist at MSU who helped secure money for the story poles and trail.

Last week, Everts was in Poplar to lead a class on fabrication, or the manufacturing of the story poles. The class was put on by Fort Peck Community College.

Everts worked with 17 students from the reservation, ranging in age from teenagers to late 60’s, to combine art with the structure of the story poles. The students used 3D modeling to carve their individual hand prints into the wood of one pole.

Everts said the project is uniquely architectural because it deals with design based on a concept. The concept behind the story poles is to connect Native people to their heritage through interactions with bison.

“So the concept is to improve culture — architecture is the perfect vehicle to create a space where that improvement can happen,” Everts said.

One of Everts’ students, AJ Ellis, has been working on the project for two years. Now a graduate student, his main focus has been on the Woven Willow Story Pole.

Ellis said that although creating the story poles has been challenging, it has enhanced his education and let him “learn by doing.”

“I can say that I worked on fabricating a design — that’s hard to say,” Ellis said.

Ellis will continue working on the project this fall. Everts predicts the Woven Willow will be finished and installed on the ranch before winter.

The completion of the trail and all five installations is expected to take a few more years. When it’s done, Turnbull said she imagines it’ll boost tourism in the area, and make the buffalo ranch and educational destination.

Turnbull said she hopes the Tata’ga Baha Omaskaskan Buffalo Trail will have positive impacts on the economic and emotional health of Fort Peck residents.

“We pray about these things in our ceremonies, that (these projects) will help our people.”



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