Big Medicine, a sacred white bison, who lived his entire life from 1933 to 1959 on the National Bison Range. Today, he’s on display at the Montana History Center in Helena (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).
When Congress passed and President Donald J. Trump signed into law the legislation that would restore the National Bison Range to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes, it marked a homecoming of sorts as the land, the operations and the bison were returned to tribal management.
Now, Native leaders throughout the state need one more thing returned, Big Medicine.
Big Medicine is the name given a white bison calf born on the range in 1933. Not an albino, Big Medicine had a mostly white coat with a tuft of brown that sometimes appeared near his horns. Many Indigenous cultures, including the Salish and Kootenai, regarded the birth as an omen of good fortune and renewed hope, and Big Medicine was kept alive on the range for 26 years, nearly triple the age of the average bull bison.
Since his death in 1959, Big Medicine has been housed at the Montana State Historical Society in Helena. The display is right across from the archives on the second floor, and he remains one of the most popular attractions for Native and non-Natives alike.
However, the Montana Native American Caucus has supported the effort by the CSKT to bring Big Medicine home, back to where he lived, to be a part of a planned museum and interpretative center.
Molly Kruckenberg, the executive director of the historical society, said that while the decision to return Big Medicine to the CSKT is in the hands of the society’s board of trustees, she said staff generally support the effort so long as the animal, which is in somewhat fragile condition, can be returned safely and preserved for the next generation of Montanans and tourists.
Showing its age
When Big Medicine died in 1959, the hide went for preservation. Kruckenberg said that techniques used in 1960 were more primitive, and in some cases, more destructive, than those used today. Big Medicine was restored again in 2000, and a 2007 conservation assessment revealed that the hide was “fragile.”
Some of the blame rests with the conservation techniques available in the late 1950s, while the other factor was biological.
“He outlived all of his herd,” Kruckenberg said. “But that meant his hide was in rough shape.”
On the second floor in Helena, he’s out of sunlight and out of reach of many. They occasionally have requests to hold a smudge ceremony or burn sweetgrass to honor Big Medicine, and Kruckenberg said most of those are accommodated.
Eve Byron, public information officer, said the most frequently asked questions of visitors includes, “Where’s Big Medicine?”
“We recognize where the Native leaders and the CSKT want Big Medicine. We’re open to having that conversation,” Kruckenberg said. “Our primary and exclusive concern is in the long-term preservation of Big Medicine.”
Some of those efforts at preserving Big Medicine were primitive, including the use of arsenic. And the understructure built to support the hide is now pushing 60 years old itself.
“He speaks to the idea of the West. He is a bison and not just spiritually unique,” Kruckenberg said. “Kids come in and ask, ‘Where’s Big Medicine?’”
Past, present, future
Tom McDonald, chairman of the Confederate Salish and Kootenai tribes, said the focus on Big Medicine isn’t just about the past or even the present, but also about the future.
“He inspired our people, and he represents hope for the future and positive things,” McDonald said. “If you think about when he came and the tough times that they lived through, it was seen a sign of renewal.”
Until the bison and the bison range were returned to the tribe, McDonald admits, there would have been few places to store and preserve Big Medicine. However, since the return of the National Bison Range, it opens up the possibility of Big Medicine coming home.
“We want him to be at the place where he lived and where he was born,” McDonald said.
With plans for a new museum and exhibit center, McDonald hopes Big Medicine’s return will be a matter of time. Because the range and the center will be near U.S. Highway 93, a popular route for getting to Glacier National Park, McDonald is convinced more people –not fewer—will visit Big Medicine.
“We want to design it for him in mind,” McDonald said. “He came forward after World War I and a lot of things that were of tremendous importance happened and to have him show up as a sign of revitalization, and it give us a sense of place where we can think about the place that we value and restore those cultural values.”