In 2006, Montana gave permission to the Nez Perce of Idaho and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes of northwest Montana to hunt buffalo on federal lands outside the border of Yellowstone National Park. During winter months, buffalo migrate to lower elevations outside the park in search of food. The tribes’ 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty with the federal government grants them the right to hunt on traditional hunting grounds that are now public land, such as the Gallatin National Forest bordering the park. The interpretation of these treaty rights has been caught up in complicated litigation since the 1980s. Additionally, the Cayuse, Walla Walla, and Umatilla tribes of Washington, and the Shoshone-Bannock of Idaho also have recognized hunting rights today.
I started photographing this story in 2016. It is an ongoing project. I assume it will take several more years to complete, given the buffalo (American Bison) hunting season lasts one-month per annum. To fully realize this project with breadth and depth, I plan to engage with several organizations involved in the management and harvesting of buffalo. This would include native skills practitioners, tribal hunters, biologists, ranchers (typically opposed to any expansion of buffalo habitat), game wardens, and The Buffalo Field Campaign (a volunteer organization opposed to any hunting or harvesting of buffalo).
The series of photographs below focuses on a small group of primitive skills practitioners who attend the annual buffalo hunt on the perimeter of Yellowstone National Park in Montana to scavenge animal parts and other animal products left behind by Native American hunters. After offering assistance to hunters by field dressing, skinning, quartering and carrying buffalo to vehicles for transportation, any meat scraps left behind are canned or packaged, fat is rendered and placed in jars, hides are tanned and bones are used to make primitive tools and ornamental objects. These individuals see themselves as a neutral party to the often controversial polemic around the hunt and management of Yellowstone buffalo, and aim to make use of what is commonly left behind in contemporary big-game hunting.
The group seeks to honor each buffalo through the reverent utilization of the whole animal, while also sharing knowledge of the forgotten skills associated with the careful processing of animals. It is important to consider the aspects of cultural tradition and conservation when viewing these images. Many of the bison who leave the park would be ultimately captured and sent to slaughter by the state, as they are caught in the tensions between the mythological West and a cattle industry lobbying against any expansion of the natural rangeland of the buffalo. What has emerged from the hunt is a collaborative effort between the Native American hunters and the scavengers to share knowledge, advocate for preservation of the species, and efficiently harvest buffalo within sustainable limits.
During cold winter months bison move to warmer rangeland outside the boundary of Yellowstone National Park and through the legal hunting ground associated with American Indian treaty hunting rights that are still practiced.
This scavenger couple and their baby boy live in a wall tent during the anual buffalo treaty hunt in Montana.
Home. Scavenger life means winters inside a wall tent.
A head and hide are removed from the carcass. Great effort is made to honor the buffalo by utilizing every aspect of the animal after the kill.
Primitive skills practitioners attend the hunt to scavenge meat, fat, hides, and other useful animal parts. Here, a scavenger retrieves a heart from a gut pile as his dog follows.
Bison quarters are lashed to a truck for the return trip home. Though most of the bison goes home with the Native American hunters, many parts can still be boiled down or picked apart to find edible meat.
Hard working hands at the end of a long day of field-dressing and scavenging buffalo (American Bison) carcasses during the annual treaty hunt on the boundary of Yellowstone National Park.
Together, they scavenge organs commonly left behind by most big game hunters today. Hearts. Livers. Fat is rendered and canned. Meat is canned in a pressure cooker or consumed and shared.
Living off the grid is also about family and community. Inside the meat processing shed, mother breaks from processing meat to nurse.
Another method of “fleshing” involves scraping the moistened hide that is laid over a pole. Tanning can take several months to complete. Tanned hides serve a variety of purposes from clothing, to bedding, and even as the covering for traditional shelters.
Buffalo hides are stretched and “fleshed” to remove meat scraps that can spoil during the laborious process of tanning. These scavengers pride themselves on sharing knowledge associated with the process of tanning hides. Several tribal members have shared their knowledge of tanning with Buffalo Bridge as well.
Spine and ribs gathered on the woodpile. They will be carefully scrutinized to remove even small scraps of meat for canning and storage. Bones are also saved to use in utilitarian objects and ornamental items.
MATTHEW HAMON is a freelance portrait photographer who lives in rural Montana. His photography exists conceptually and aesthetically in the spaces between photojournalism and staged editorial imagery. Matthew’s photography has been featured in Outside Magazine, The Independent (UK), and Lens Culture, among others. He is a 2016 Syngenta photography award recipient and winner of the Diaframmi Chiusi Photography Prize. Recently, two of his portraits were featured within the 2016 Taylor Wessing Prize at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Self-described as “post-rural,” Matthew currently lives in Potomac, Montana near the Blackfoot River.