with Brian Bull
What happens when religions collide? Often, as we hear in the news, the spiritual fabric that is created to unite people, can lead to divisions and intolerance. But, as Brian Bull shows in today’s in today’s Elder Wisdom, the survival of a tribal religion hinges on the enduring beliefs of its followers.
Sixty-nine year old Cynthia Kipp is a Blackfeet elder, who claims 43 grandchildren and 26 great grandchildren. Her Browning, Montana home is nestled away among some cottonwoods by the Two Medicine River. As she holds a granddaughter in her arms, she reminisces about her own childhood and her reverence for Blackfeet spirituality.
The earliest time that I was able to see the Thunder Pipe was in early forties, when my Grandmother, John and Mary Ground, acquired the pipe. It left a profound impact on me as a small child. I saw the religious ceremony, the sacred doings that went on there. I remember all the elderly people in the forties at that time who were all there. I was very, very impressed and it stayed with me all my life. I saw how devout my mother and her brothers and sisters were when my grandmother and grandfather were transferred that pipe. When I saw the happening there with my grandmother, she looked so serene and I thought that she was so holy.
When we were small, we were shown that we must have a lot of respect for sacred ceremony. There’s no running around of small children. It leaves a great impression on a small child that you know what’s happening is very, very religious and you must have real good manners in which to be in there to hear all the sacred songs, to remember how the elderly people were dressed and exactly what they went through.
Kipp still recalls her grandparents’ thunder bundle, considered to be an important source of spiritual power or medicine, among the Blackfeet. Kipp says there were many medicine bundles kept on the Reservation during her childhood.
Years later, I looked back on it and thought, why, you know, this was our life. I mean this was our life’s blood. Everything that we did pertained to the bundle. (baby’s voice)
Kipp says the Thunder bundle is unwrapped when the spring’s first thunder is heard, revealing a sacred pipe. Then, all during the year, pipes were used for prayer. She remembers how her grandfather hosted gatherings at their home with elders, to pray, consult and share food together.
The first thing they’d do is light a smudge and pray and sing and smoke their pipe and visit. And they were really very, very polite to each other when they came in. And they would be fed. They’d sit around and smoke their pipe. And then the host or the owner of the lodge if it was in a lodge, instead of him saying, “Well, you know, it’s really late. I have to go to work in the morning. I’ve got a lot to do. I want you all to leave.” He, they, you didn’t do that. Like I’m telling you, they were very polite. He would take the pipe, he’d take the bowl out and he’d put it in his smudge box. He’d empty the tobacco out and all he said was, “The pipe is out.” And that was an indication for everyone to get up and leave. And they did. They really practiced, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.
Kipp says many relatives uphold the Blackfeet religion, which is openly practiced today. But she recalls the 1930’s and 40’s, when Christian churches were trying to erase Blackfeet traditions across Montana, including spiritual ceremonies.
R. Carlos Nakai and William Eaton
I remember when I was a little girl, the priest came out, and that’s exactly what he asked us, if we had gone to a ceremony. And we all said, “No, no, no, we didn’t.” So yes, they tried to stop it. In fact, they did when the missionaries first came in the early 1800’s.
And then when they built Holy Family Mission over here on Two Medicine in 1882, my grandmother went to the mission, as well as my mother and her older sisters. And they were, they were told not to speak Blackfeet. Their hair was cut. They were told not to believe in their religion, that is was wrong, that they had to believe the Catholic ways or else. If you didn’t believe in the Holy Catholic Church, you would certainly go to Hell. And when I was small I was frightened to death because in our religion we have no Hell. We have no Devil.
Of all the things her ancestors helped preserve during the missionary movement, Kipp is particularly grateful for the traditional stories that form the backbone of Blackfeet sprituality.
Blackfeet mythology is really very, very special to me. Because the oral tradition of the Blackfeet was certainly something that everyone should know about. Our own stories of creation, our own stories of the constellations, of the sky, and usually the stories that they told had a meaning. And the wintertime was usually the time that they told the stories in the lodges. I can imagine it was beautiful.
Kipp says many stories told around the fire involved a Blackfeet cultural hero named Napi, or, the Old Man.
Dreams of the Children
R. Carlos Nakai and William Eaton
He’s our mythical character who was a prankster, a joker and he could change things. He talked to the animals. Sometimes he got himself into an awfully lot of trouble. And he did a lot of things that he shouldn’t do.
You see the cottonwood trees out here behind the house? You see that looks like great big eyes on the tree? Well, one time, Napi came upon these little birds, sitting on the limb. And he said, “Oh my little brothers. What are you doing?” Well, the little birds would say, “(L)”. And their eyes would pop out. And they’d say, “(L)” and their little eyes would pop back in. And they told Napi, “Brother, you can only do it three times. The fourth time if you, (baby’s voice) if you do it four times, your eyes are going to stay on the trees.”
And so Napi said, “Oh I don’t have to,” he said to himself. “I don’t have to listen to these little birds, these little (L). They don’t know what they’re talking about.” So, it was his turn and Napi said, “(L)”. His eyes popped out. And he said, “(L)”. And they’d come back in. Well, he did it one time too many, and his eyes stayed on the trees, and that’s why you see those great big eyes on the cottonwood trees right today.
The lesson learned from that episode is that you have to pay attention, and you have to follow the rules. Listen to what someone’s telling. When they say, “Don’t” well then, don’t.
Waiting Jan Michael
“Looking Wolf” Reibach
But other than that, we, if someone isn’t minding, they tell them, “Hey, you’re just like old Napi. Now stop.”
I still tell those stories to my ten children. And they ah, they all, they heard all the Napi stories about the fox, about the gophers, about the birch trees. They’ve, they’ve heard all the stories, now their children. I have nine children. I adopted my sister’s daughter, who passed away. And I have forty- three grandchildren and soon to have twenty-six great grandchildren.
Kipp says she sees many young people taking up the old ways, including a growing number who participate in traditional sweat lodge ceremonies. She makes sure her grandchildren participate in the Blackfeet tribal language programs. While the days of the missionaries are largely past, the after effects – such as the near extinction of the Blackfeet language – are still felt among the tribe. Kipp is determined to reclaim it for the coming generations.
For Wisdom of the Elders, I’m Brian Bull.
Brian Bull is Assistant News Director for Wisconsin Public Radio, and is an enrolled member of the Nez Perce tribe. He lives with his wife, two kids, and three cats in Madison, Wisconsin.