Bison reintroduction showcased in documentary film

By Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor

BOZEMAN – The first time Bozeman filmmaker Daniel Glick saw the bison herd grazing along U.S Highway 2 between Browning and East Glacier Park, Montana, something inside him changed.

“I just remember thinking, ‘Here’s a chance. I want to film something about the buffalo,’” Glick said. He saw a sign on the burly fence that gave a name to his feelings: Blackfeet Nation Bison Reserve.

In the area while working on a film about the Badger-Two Medicine area, Glick was quick to make connections with the Blackfeet Buffalo Program. He was already inspired by a dream he’d had about making a story about bison and felt compelled to share the animal’s story of return to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.

Since that day about three years ago, Glick has joined with videographers, writers and friends to form Thunderheart Films, a production company working to advance films that foster healing, tolerance and unity for the native peoples of the U.S.

On March 21, the production company’s first film, “Drive Them Buffalo,” premiered at the Bozeman Doc Series documentary film show, having already screened at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula in February.

The film provides a close look at the only indigenous tribal-led buffalo drive in North America, as the Blackfeet moved their herd from summer to winter rangeland.

“I didn’t make it with any other aim other than to be a film of support for the buffalo program,” Glick said, adding that he hopes the piece can be used in schools and programing to educate people about the Blackfeet’s modern-day cultural rebirth.

During the three-day bison drive, members of the Blackfeet Buffalo Program stay in tipis.

For millennia, the Blackfeet relied almost entirely on bison. However, their traditional lifestyle was shattered when American settlers moved in and wiped out the animals to near extinction.

Today, the Blackfeet tribe continues to seek its place amid a modern society and traditional native culture. One key aspect of this, tribal members say in Glick’s film, is the return of the bison.

“The older people would always say that the buffalo would never come back, so now I feel like we’re getting a little piece of us back,” said Kendall Edmo in the film. In addition to working with Thunderheart, Edmo is a Blackfeet Nation tribal member and works at the Blackfeet Tribal Historic Preservation Office.

The Blackfeet are among more than 59 tribes in the U.S. that are working to restore bison populations to their lands. Currently, the Blackfeet care for a thriving population of bison that originally came from Alberta’s Elk Island National Park. The bison live on two fenced ranges owned by the tribe and are descendants of a herd captured from the area and sent to Canada more than 140 years ago.

In the future, the tribe hopes the herd can free roam across the nearly 4,000-square-mile area comprised of the reservation, near Glacier National Park and the Badger-Two Medicine roadless area. However, according to Glick, the bison program faces challenges with grazing regulations and non-tribal landowners, resulting in confinement for the herd between two large pastures.

Volunteers drive the herd between winter and summer ranges in the spring and fall, which amounts to a three-day event.

Filming for “Drive Them Buffalo” took place in October 2016, and the volunteers and filmmakers were hit by a surprise blizzard on the second day of the journey. Rising at about 5:30 a.m., the crew found themselves in a fog of snow. “You couldn’t see anything but the plains,” Glick said. “We could have been 1,000 years back in time. … Seeing the buffalo walk through the mist, it was like a dream.”

While many of the volunteer herders rode horseback, the filmmakers drove ATVs up to 30 mph alongside the herd.

“It’s beyond words, the experience of being with the animals in their own way. You don’t get to experience that these days because they’re all behind fences,” Glick said. “You can’t stop them. You’d never be able to stop them, but you can steer them. And you have to give them space.”

Thunderheart Director of Photography Zane Clampett said, “Personally, I think it was an awesome story of what the tribe is doing and their intent to bring free roaming bison back. … It’s not only the return of the buffalo, but it’s a cultural renaissance for the tribe.”

In addition to “Drive Them Buffalo,” Thunderheart is working on a narrative short film called “Iniskim,” which follows the journey of a young girl as she recovers from trauma by reconnecting with the bison. A longer documentary feature titled “Buffalo Resurrection” is scheduled for release in 2019.

To learn more about Thunderheart or to watch trailers for these films, visit thunderheartfilms.com. To learn more about the Blackfeet Buffalo Program, visit blackfeetcountry.com.