2,000-year-old Bison Bone Bed Destroyed on Crow Reservation

from Wildlife Promise

Bison bone bed being back hoed

Bison bone bed being back hoed – photo courtesy Crow Culture Committee

Last summer, a 2,000-year-old national treasure was dug up with a backhoe. The Sarpy Creek Bison Kill site, as it is now known, is located on the Crow Reservation in southeastern Montana.Why was this site, a probable candidate for a UNESCO World Heritage site, destroyed with heavy equipment?

According to archaeologists and Crow tribal officials, the destruction was part of a failed process to expedite the permitting and expansion of a coal mine located on the Crow Reservation.

Last week a group of investigators, Crow tribal officials and archeologists visited the site to start documenting and investigating the destruction. The bison bone bed was discovered when Westmoreland Coal Company hired an archaeological firm from Butte Montana, GCM Services, to conduct an archaeological resource identification survey, required under the National Historic Preservation Act. Today, investigators from the DOI’s Office of Inspector General are there looking into how the process failed so completely.

Burton Pretty on Top, Crow Tribe Cultural Director, said that rather than go through the appropriate recovery process at the site, outlined by U.S. law under the Archeological Resources Protection Act and the Crow Tribe’s Cultural Resource Protection Act of 2005,  GCM Services excavated the site in 2-meter squares with a backhoe and power screen to separate the spear points and bones from the dirt. The bison bones are now piled several feet high and remain exposed next to the holes they were dug out of.

Five-gallon buckets were filled with artifacts and hauled off by GCM Services. The Tribe still does not know where those artifacts are and requests for their return have been ignored.

Sarpy Bison Kill Site - Bison Bone Pile

Sarpy Bison Kill site bison bone pile that has been excavated with a backhoe. Photo by Joe Wilkins

Archaeology with a Backhoe

According to Crow cultural officials and anthropologist Judson Finely from Utah State University, the site contained thousands of butchered bison remains and prehistoric spear points dating back to the Late Archaic period. Finley believes that this site could have been classified (if properly preserved and excavated) as a World Heritage Site on par with the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump in Alberta and should have taken between three to five years to properly excavate.

Finely is confident that the data recovery plan that the archeology firm prepared would never have been approved by any state historic preservation office.

“Basically what we have right now is this big hole that is roughly the size of an Olympic swimming pool where there once was a really beautiful bison bone bed,” Finley said. “And sitting next to that is a giant pile of extremely valuable butchered bison remains just laying out on the ground in the middle of nowhere, exposed to the weather with cows stomping around on them.”

Tribal historic sites under threat in the Powder River Basin?

Unfortunately, the destruction of important cultural and historic sites in the history rich Powder River Basin, where last great Indian wars were fought, will be a common occurrence in the near future from coal mining expansion. One of the biggest threats is in the Otter Creek valley in southeastern Montana, the location of the proposed Otter Creek coal mine.

This area, which borders the Northern Cheyenne Reservation to the east, is an area rich in tribal history and historic sites. The Tongue River, Powder River and Otter Creek region is known to the Cheyenne as Ho’ho’nah’shi’e  or “shaley rock earth country.” The Otter Creek valley is a well known location of Northern Cheyenne homesteads, burial sites, cairns and earth lodges and probably hundreds of other artifacts that haven’t been discovered yet.

Can we protect these sites from destruction?

Bison Bone pile

Bison bone pile exposed to the elements for 1 year – photo by Mike Scott

As federal and state governments move forward with fast-track coal leasing in the Powder River Basin to coal companies that plan to ship overseas to the Asian markets, attention must be paid to the cultural and historic resources that are located in this region. In this instance, the failure was so shocking, that we have to stop and consider if regulations that are meant to protect such sites are sufficient.

Without proper oversight of these coal companies, we will be wantonly throwing away the cultural uniqueness and history of the West. Without proper care, we will allow for-profit companies to destroy tribal and public resources that should be celebrated and protected for generations.

“What should have been the major topic of discussion was, ‘How can we avoid this site, and if we can’t avoid it, how can we do something extremely valuable with it?’” Finley said. “In my opinion, this happened because the coal company thought they could get away with a shortened compliance process that wasn’t going to cost them as much money.”

Please go to the Great Falls Tribune for more photos and news stories about this important story.