Teepees erected atop Montana cliffs to honor those who died
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — William Snell’s record for erecting a teepee is just under 14 minutes. It’s a bit more complicated in the winter, he said, but in a little more than five hours on Saturday, seven teepees were standing tall atop the Billings Rimrocks, their white canvas taut against the winter winds moving across the snowy prairie.
“It was something we wanted to do during the summer,” said Snell, a member of the Apsáalooke Nation who helped coordinate the project through the Pretty Shield Foundation and Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council. “Putting lodges up in the winter is not an easy thing.”
COVID-19 has complicated efforts to bring forth this installation, but Snell and others involved decided to erect the lodges before the end of the year as a remembrance of those who have died and a sign to the community that there is hope.
“The intent behind it is to put them up as a symbol or a reminder of the struggle that people are going through,” Snell told The Billings Gazette. “In many ways, the pandemic that is occurring, it’s affected all people, all generations.”
Until Jan. 3, “The Lighting of the Teepees: A Symbol of Hope” will be on display atop the Rims to the east of the airport at the far end of Swords Park. Wrapped with 18-foot canvases, the teepees stand starkly against the shifting skies, with the cityscape visible in nearly every direction. For many, it’ll be the first time seeing teepees erected on the Rims. As night falls, they glow warmly, illuminated in different colors from the inside.
“We want people to enjoy them,” said Jade Snell, William’s son. Looking across the field at the more than 20 volunteers, family members, and employees of the various partners, including Rocky Mountain Tribal Council, the Pretty Shield Foundation, and Sky Wind World, Inc., Jade said he was proud to see how many people joined forces to erect these lodges.
“What’s inspiring to me are the people who have come together. We didn’t even ask, they just wanted to help.”
The installation was funded by the Harry L. Willett Foundation. The public is invited to write the name of friends and family members who have died in 2020. Rocks can be placed on the ground around the teepee circles. The rocks will remain after the install is taken down, scattered across the ground.
The teepees are owned by the Pretty Shield Foundation, which uses them for various events and skill-building workshops. Atop the Rims, more than 120 poles were lifted to the sky to form seven teepees, erected in the style of the Apsáalooke people.
William Snell, who is the executive director of the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council and president of Pretty Shield Foundation, said his understanding of teepees and their symbolism came from the teachings of his parents and grandparents. Raised in Fort Belknap, he is the son of William F. Snell, meaning “Day Chief,” of the Assiniboine tribe, and Dr. Alma Snell, who was raised in the Apsáalooke tribe by her grandmother, Pretty Shield.
“What I have been taught by my elders is that the teepee is considered one of our mothers. There’s mother earth, biological mother, and our lodge. It helps us sustain life.”
Each part of the lodge is symbolic, Snell described. “Ultimately, it is representing protection for the family.”
The poles that create the teepee’s circular structure represent the clan and family members, including uncles, aunts, children, parents, and other familial members. The final pole to be laid in the circle is the “chief pole,” where the canvas is attached.
As the canvas wraps the poles, it represents protection of the family, Snell said.
“Every aspect is meaningful. When we are putting them up, we are not just putting up a lodge. We are representing an entire way of life for our people.”
The teepee becomes a symbol of a greater system coming together. In the same way, erecting one takes many hands. On Saturday, as blustery winter winds caught the canvas like a boat’s sail, there were plenty of people to guide it into place, then drive stakes into the barely thawed land.
The teepees were erected in the style of the Apsáalooke people, though the Sioux are also represented by different door styles. All are white canvas enclosures, representing purity.
Snell’s hope was to erect 12 teepees to represent the dozen nations represented by the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho, but didn’t have enough supplies. Even at seven, the display is slowing traffic along the busy Airport Road.
The Pretty Shield Foundation has 16 teepees in total, used primarily for its Two Worlds Cultural Immersion Camp that brings people together to build relationships and learn teamwork skills through erecting teepees.
“Those teachings relate and work in any culture, not just our culture,” said Snell. “It translates very easily to a functioning skill to be taught and learn to apply to their own culture or way of life.”
Gerald Grey, chairman of the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council and also of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians, hopes the teepees will show solidarity between tribal nations and across cultures. As well, these teepees can be a beacon of hope and show support for Indigenous communities struggling with the outbreak of COVID-19.
“One of the bigger challenges throughout Indian country and one of the main reasons for the spread is because we have multi-generational housing,” Grey said. “People there have larger families that live together.” This is also compounded with the limited medical facilities on reservations. “They may have one ventilator bed and two ICU rooms, not 12. It makes it a lot more difficult to treat people who may come down with it.”
Grey describes the teepee as a symbol of home, often with a fire burning inside symbolizing the heart of the home. Erecting a teepee begins at the base, an honor and homage back to Mother Earth.
“When the teepees go up, we all unite together,” said Grey. “We are one. We are all family, everyone.”