Down to the bones 

A historic discovery on the Blackfeet Reservation runs the risk of being lost amid another showdown with the federal government

Twelve men wearing sweatshirts, thermals and knit caps sit at the edge of a freshly unearthed pile of bison bones on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. It’s a cold October afternoon and there’s work to do, but first things first. They need to pray.

“We’ll pray for the people and the buffalo spirit that’s been so good to us for thousands of years,” says Blackfeet Tribal Preservation Officer John Murray. “We’ll pray with this tobacco.”

After completing the prayer, Murray and the other men place small wads of tobacco atop the hundreds of bones protruding from the earth and next to a small hunk of coal burning sweetgrass. In July, contractors working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs discovered the bones while excavating a water line for a new $22 million dormitory for the BIA-operated Cut Bank Creek Boarding School. The bones were a surprise, leaving Murray and his crew to conduct an emergency excavation.

“This is a salvage operation,” he says.

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  • Cathrine L. Walters

Among the discoveries at the site are 40 intact bison skulls, scapulas, ribs and jawbones complete with massive incisors. Beads, arrowheads and stone tools are plentiful, too, including scrapers used to remove fur from hides. Among the most important finds was an iniskim, which the Blackfeet traditionally used as a prayer stone to aid in a bountiful bison hunt.

All together, the bones and artifacts constitute the remains of a bison processing operation that archaeologists believe dates back approximately 1,500 years. Murray’s Tribal Preservation Office crew also discovered a shell casing manufactured in 1870, roughly 13 years before the Northern Plains bison were nearly killed off.

Archaeologists laud the discovery of the site for providing invaluable insights into how the Blackfeet people lived prior to the arrival of non-Native settlers.

“When you see it in the large picture, it’s awesome, in the literal sense of the word,” says María Nieves Zedeño, an archaeologist from the University of Arizona Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology and the first to identify the site as a processing operation.

But despite the significance of the discovery, its future remains in jeopardy. The BIA has not called off the dormitory project, as the Blackfeet have requested. The roughly $130,000 allocated by the bureau to conduct what Murray calls “reactive archaeology” has also run out.

In an effort to preserve the artifacts and learn as much as possible about how their ancestors lived, Murray’s all-Blackfeet crew of resource field technicians is volunteering its time to excavate the site as quickly as possible. They’re unsure when—or even if—time will run out because the BIA has yet to say how it intends to proceed. But based on the tribe’s long-strained relationship with the federal government, Murray says he has little faith that the BIA will help him save this piece of Blackfeet history.

“I don’t trust them,” he says. “They’ve been running us over for a long time.”

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