Saving Buffalo Nation: Settler Colonialism and the Rise of Wildlife Conservation in the Intermountain West, 1855-1934
The history of wildlife conservation in the United States is commonly told as a progressive narrative of enlightened environmental stewardship. The American bison is a potent national symbol of our natural heritage—one grounded in both the excesses of 19th-century capitalism and violent state expansion, and the redemptive promise of renewal through endangered species protection. This paper examines the concatenations of two historical narratives: the efforts of elite conservationists to protect the bison through wildlife protected areas under the auspices of the American Bison Society, and the efforts of Séliš and Ksanka peoples in western Montana to sustain and revitalized their own relationship with bison. The National Bison Range was one of the first wildlife refuges created in the United States and played a vital role in sustaining bison for the future. But its creation was deeply implicated in the settler colonial project of dispossessing Séliš and Ksanka lands and undermining culturally and materially important human-animal relationships with bison on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Elite conservationists failed to recognize the extant bison herd on the reservation, sanctioned by tribal leaders and maintained by the tribal community, as an effective Indigenous effort to maintain an important connection to this threatened species and prevent its extinction. Ultimately, elite conservationists made use of the opening of the Flathead Indian Reservation to white settlement in the allotment era to further their vision of endangered species protection as a vital project of the nation. This history has important implications for contemporary conflict over control of wildlife areas on Indian reservations as tribal nations contest histories of dispossession and violence to develop alternate, decolonized futures.