A view of the Mission Mountains and the Flathead Indian Reservation in the valley below taken from the top of Red Sleep Mountain on the National Bison Range. (Credit: Jace Raymond Smellie)
By: Jace Raymond Smellie
As my truck made the slow climb up the single lane dirt road of Red Sleep Mountain Drive, I came upon another pickup pulled off to the side of the road. An older couple stood with binoculars. I was surprised to see their backs were turned away from the valley below where the bison were congregated—this was the National Bison Range, after all. Instead, they looked up toward the steep slopes dotted with enormous ponderosa pines.
My time at the bison range made me consider intentions—how and when do our intentions change? I didn’t intend to find my mother’s birth family. I didn’t intend to visit the Bison Range. I didn’t intend to spend all afternoon searching for a grizzly bear.
I told the couple I’d keep my eyes peeled as I continued my drive up the mountain. It didn’t take long to learn that many of the visitors on this hot August afternoon shared the same preoccupation—everyone hoped to find the rumored brown bear and her newborn cub. As I chatted with more of the tourists, a consensus developed—the mid-afternoon heat was likely keeping the bears from venturing out into the open where we could enjoy their presence. Even still, I couldn’t help but continue to scan the mountainside, maintaining a sliver of hope until I reached the valley floor.
Nearly fifteen years ago, on my mom’s first phone call with anyone from her birth family, her uncle explained that we were direct descendants of Chief Victor and Chief Charlo—the last chiefs of the Bitterroot Salish. At first, I wanted to reject this heritage—I already possessed all the family and home I needed.
The sun glistened off the dust kicked up by pickups and bison across the valley floor of the preserve. I was forced to stop multiple times to wait for the bison to move so that I could ungratefully continue my drive toward the exit. Bison are majestic, and on that day, I didn’t appreciate them. I had allowed myself to become distracted by the prospect of finding something else—my intentions for the day had subconsciously shifted.
I first learned of the Bison Range at the Peoples’ Center, a museum and visitors’ center run by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation. Here I learned of my ancestors’ connection to the bison. My ancestors would cross the continental divide annually to hunt bison to provide food for the long cold winters in the Bitterroot Valley. The decimation of the bison population in the 1800s was one of the deciding factors when Chief Charlo finally agreed to leave his lifelong home and lead his people north onto the Flathead Reservation.
When I visited the Bison Range, I had no intention of searching for a grizzly bear and her cub because I didn’t know they were there. When I first got to Montana and the Flathead Reservation, I had no intention of visiting the bison range because I didn’t know it existed. When my mom first learned her birth mother’s name and what tribe we belonged to, I didn’t plan to ever contact her birth family or tribe because I didn’t know what I couldn’t see—the bond of blood and land.
My wife has a saying—information is inspiration. In other words, every day I am trying to shed my ignorance.
My cousin April taught me that in the Salish language, you cannot claim ownership of anything in the natural world—expressions of possession like my water, or, my tree, or, my land, cannot be expressed in Salish the same way they are expressed in the English language. Instead of ownership, the Salish language expresses connection, similar to what I mean when I say—
Even when I couldn’t see it, this place, these people, and even these bison always were and forever will be mine.
Note: Jace Smellie’s cousin April Charlo's TED Talk will deepen understanding for our readers, and serves as an accompaniment to Smellie’s writing. Charlo talks about Indigenous languages and the principle at the end of Smellie’s piece.
Jace Raymond Smellie earned his MFA in poetry at George Mason University. Originally from Pocatello, Idaho, Jace is a descendent of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. He was awarded a 2021 MFA Travel Fellowship from The Alan Cheuse Center for International Writers, and his recent poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Southern Humanities Review, Passages North, The Journal, Ocean State Review, and elsewhere.
(Credit: Jessica Valentine Photography)