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Award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns, Tribal members discuss new documentary

Bison Range Bison
Posted at 2:21 PM, Jun 09, 2023

MOIESE — Award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns was in the Mission Valley on Thursday, June 8, 2023, to tour the Bison Range which is the scene of his new upcoming film "The American Buffalo" which was shot on location in Montana in 2021.

Hundreds of years ago the area that is now the Bison Range was filled with bison. It’s where world-renowned filmmaker Ken Burns made a new documentary about the tragedy of the loss of the American bison.

“The near exhibition of bison had a profound impact on us, our culture, our way of life,” noted Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) Information and Education Specialist Germaine White.

Bison Range Bison
The Bison Range on The Flathead Indian Reservation in Moiese was used a the backdrop for a new documentary by award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns.

There were an estimated 30 million bison in the United States in the early 19th Century but as settlers moved west — and demand for bison skins and body parts grew — herd sizes dropped. The bison were on the brink of going extinct by 1900.

In Burns' documentary, different Tribes share stories of the near extinction of the bison. Rosalyn Lapier, a historian, and member of the Blackfeet Tribe, calls it far-reaching.

“For example, when we talk about the turn of the last century -- when the conservation movement and the preservation movement got started in the United States -- we often glorify the White men who were a part of that process,” Lapier said. And one of the things that you’ll see in this particular film is sort of not that glorification. but thinking about those people who were the leaders of the conservation and preservation movement -- and especially restoring the bison and the turn of the last century.

Ken Burns Bison Range
Filmmaker Ken Burns speaking on June 8, 2023, during a tour of the Bison Range in Moiese which is the scene of his new upcoming film "The American Buffalo."

Burns says that diversity in documentaries is important, especially when it comes to the story of bison.

“We tend to presume that the White American view is the only view there is and even if it can be sympathetic to others, it’s still a part of our view and at times we’ve learned to sit and be quiet,” Burns said.

It’s commonly known that bison are associated with Native American Tribes, but CSKT wildlife biologist Whisper Camel-Means explained it’s more unique than most think.

"I would love to see across the state of Montana different Tribes showing their connections, their individual unique connections to bison, [using] their word for bison,” Camel-Means said. “Being able to see the dichotomy across the land that we’re all connected to a species, but we all have a different relationship. It’s not all just the same thing.”

Bison Range Burns
“The near exhibition of bison had a profound impact on us, our culture, our way of life." - Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Information and Education Specialist Germaine White.

Montana PBS hosted a special film preview event at the Wilma Theater on Thursday evening. The first look at the film was followed by a panel conversation with director Ken Burns and fellow writers and producers of the film.

The two-part film will debut on Montana PBS on Oct. 16 and Oct. 17, 2023.