Who knew we’d be exposed to Blackfeet culture immediately on our first work day? In preparation, one of our team members, Julie, started us off with an emotional historical message from Chief Seattle:
“How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. Every part of this earth is sacred. All things share the same breath – the beast, the tree, the man, the air shares its spirit with all life. The earth is our mother. Earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth. All things are bound together. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing and humming insect is holy. We are part of the earth and it is part of us; the sap which courses through the trees, the perfumed flowers are our sisters, the deer, the horse, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the juices in the meadows, the body heat of the pony, and man – all belong to the same family. The rivers are our brothers, they quench our thirst. They carry our canoes and feed our children. This shinning water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water. The water’s murmur is the voice of my father’s father. The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also receives his last sigh – all things are connected – man does not weave this web of life. He is merely a strand of it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”
The group was assigned to work where the annual sun dance ceremony had taken place, a very spiritual event for the Blackfeet community. We met Tom, a local man, who took us into the sun dance lodge and took the time to explain the traditions and customs that took place there over the previous four days and three nights.
Tom explained how the sun dancers and those who were “piercing” on behalf of the Tribe couldn’t have any food or water for the duration of the ceremony. He described the significance of the twelve trees that hold up the lodge, the center tree which connects to the creator, the flesh offerings, the eagle feathers, the sage, smudge, and many colorful cloth pieces tied around the lodge. He also told us that each color has special significance in the Blackfeet culture: white is for the creator, red is for the thunder and rain, green is for Mother Earth, dark blue is for the mountains and water, light blue is for the sky, yellow is for the sun, orange is for the moon, and purple is for the buffalo.
Our job was to help take down some of the tents and dismantle one of the sun dance lodges and work with some of the local people cleaning up after the four-day ceremony. It was a truly unique and awe-inspiring experience that most of us will carry with us for a very long time.
We were then introduced to the Blackfeet custom of the sweat, which takes place in a small igloo-like structure with a pit in the center where red-hot rocks heat up the lodge to 150-degree temperatures. This custom, along with the sun dance, are ways in which the Blackfeet Indians directly send their prayers to the creator. We were able to help take the cool rocks from the sweat that took place the night before. We took them out of the pit and placed them on the fire in preparation for the sweat that would take place tonight. A few of our team members had the unique opportunity to experience this ceremony firsthand.
One of the most surprising and rewarding things about the Blackfeet is how open and willing they are to continuously share their culture and way of life as well as invite us to participate in many of their traditions and ceremonies, making us feel welcome and allowing us to learn and experience a way of life very different from our own.
by Barbara B., Canandaigua, New York.