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Restoration of Blackfeet bison takes center stage in new documentary

A small group of bison in a field of dried grass and sagebrush.
Mike Albans
A small group of bison in a field of dried grass and sagebrush.

The 21st Big Sky Documentary Film Festival is underway in Missoula. The annual event celebrates nonfiction films and creators from around the world — including right here in Montana. MTPR’s Austin Amestoy sat down with the filmmakers behind “Bring Them Home / Aiskótáhkapiyaaya,” which chronicles decades-long effort by a group of Blackfeet people to restore a herd of free-ranging bison to their ancestral lands.

Austin Amestoy: Tens of millions of American bison once roamed the Great Plains, but a coordinated effort by white settlers to slaughter the species nearly succeeded 100 years ago. Now, a new documentary tells the story of a small group of Blackfeet people who worked for decades to restore a wild herd of buffalo, or iinii, to their ancestral home.

Joining me to talk more about their film, "Bring Them Home," are directors Daniel Glick, Ivy MacDonald, and Ivan MacDonald. Hello to you all.

Daniel Glick: Hello. Thanks for having us.

Ivy MacDonald: Yeah, thank you for having us.

Ivan MacDonald: Hi.

Austin: So, the establishment of a free-ranging herd of bison on Tribal land by the Blackfeet last summer was obviously huge news. But, this film really goes into depth about the history behind that effort. And, I was really struck by how obvious it was that you guys have spent a lot of time on this project — like, on the scale of years, I'm imagining. How did this project begin? Tell me about its inception, Daniel.

Daniel: The beginning was in 2016. Me and a couple other of our core team members shot two short films on a buffalo drive. One of one of the buffalo program people told us in an interview about the return of the Elk Island herd, and the way he spoke about it made me think, "Oh, wow. It seems like there's a good story there." And, from what I could tell, nobody else was pursuing it; a, kind of, in-depth Blackfeet story about that effort to to set them free, into the wild.

Ivan: We kind of realized more like, you know, "What are the really important elements of the story?" And, you know, it's just it's the Blackfeet efforts, and it's the incredible history of the bison. And, you know, it's the Blackfeet world view of how bison, you know– we look at by bison as niksókowaawaks , the Blackfeet word for "relatives." And, that's kind of what we see bison as.

Austin: Another, sort of, craft question, perhaps for you, Daniel. The opening was striking, right? And intentionally so. We sort of crane up over a hillside and see herd of bison, you know, sort of thundering across the plain. And that's just the first of what can only be described as "glamor shots" of bison all throughout the film. Is it hard to film bison? You know, how did you approach that task?

Daniel: I haven't gotten tired of it. I've filmed, you know– it's probably 80 days of filming bison. I mean, I was I was nervous the first couple of years. But, the instruction we got was, "Just watch their tails." And then, as soon as you see their tail go up, that's the first warning sign that you're invading their space.

Austin: I remember during the drive, there's a shot in the film that just was, like, so striking. One of the men on horseback is sort of doing his thing, riding along. And, one of the bulls, just out of nowhere, pivots and charges.

Daniel: I think Ivy had an experience like that too; like, the herd coming up on her.

Ivy: Yeah, yeah. At one point, we were doing one of the drives and, I'm sitting up waiting for them, and then just over the hill, I see them, and I was like, "Oh, s---!" Took my camera and ran off. But it was like, such a crazy thing, because I could kind of feel, like, the rumble. And I was like, "Oh, they must be getting close."

Austin: Wow. You feel that sense of closeness, I think, in the film. You know, another great part of the film is narration by Lily Gladstone — of course, up for an Oscar nomination for her work in "Killers of the Flower Moon," grew up in Montana on the Blackfeet Nation. Daniel, at what point did she join this project?

Daniel: It was day one. I had known her through the short films that I had done. Like, We'd had some communication and then within that first year, 2017, is when we started working on this project. Yeah, we just talked about it, like, "Hey, would you be our narrator?"

Austin: You guys had to get really, really personal with a lot of people about this project. They had to sort of invite you into their lives. So I'm curious, you know, was it difficult to get the access you needed to tell the story you wanted to tell? Maybe that's a question for Ivy.

Ivy: The thing about it was that, you know, we as Blackfeet people, and how me and Ivan grew up and where we grew up, we knew the importance of bison from the day we're born. Our people, the most sacred ceremony revolves around the bison. You know, I think that access was already kind of there, and it was just kind of cool to reconnect with all of these community members that, you know, were doing such incredible work.

Austin: At the end of the film, I'm curious, Ivan, what lessons you hope viewers take away from this movie or or what themes you hope stick in their mind?

Ivan: I hope that people really, you know, not only understand the importance of bison, because bison are keystone species, bison are probably one of the most important animals to North America; to the world. You know, these bison are this center of the health of the ecosystem of the plains; the health of the ecosystem of indigenous communities.

And, I really love how the film ends. You know, I always think that there's kind of this opportunity to be cynical, or not see the good in the world. And, I think really with this film, I hope people understand that, you know, "Look at the Blackfeet. This small community that may historically be described as marginalized or disadvantaged, they're trying to change the world for everyone." There is hope, and there are people trying to make our our world a better place for tomorrow.

Austin: Once again, filmmakers Ivan MacDonald, Daniel Glick and Ivy MacDonald discussing their new documentary, "Bring Them Home." The film premieres at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival on Saturday, February 24th at 6 p.m. at The Wilma in Missoula. Daniel, Ivy, Ivan — thank you for your time.

Daniel: Thank you.

Ivy: Thank you.

Ivan: Thank you.

After the recording of this interview, a Big Sky Documentary Film Festival jury selected “Bring Them Home / Aiskótáhkapiyaaya” for the 2024 Big Sky Award, which recognizes “a film that artistically honors the character, history, tradition, and imagination of the American West.”

Austin graduated from the University of Montana’s journalism program in May 2022. He came to MTPR as an evening newscast intern that summer, and jumped at the chance to join full-time as the station’s morning voice in Fall 2022.

He is best reached by emailing
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