During a flight from Billings, Montana to Minneapolis, Minnesota today I traveled about 850 miles and about 36 years (round trip). We were in Montana this week to visit family and friends and to spend time at a cabin up the Stillwater River in South-Central Montana. The trip was great, as you can see from some of our pictures posted here.
It was clear as we left Billings at one in the afternoon and I had a window seat. We took off west—into the wind—and then made a wide arcing turn to the north and then came around 90 more degrees to begin our flight east to Minneapolis. Looking down, it didn’t take long before I identified the Yellowstone River and I-90. I absolutely LOVE looking out the window on flights—it hits the same sweet spot in me that looking through an atlas does when I am on the ground. I play a game with myself and try to identify every city and obvious natural feature we fly over.
Because it was clear today and because I have spent a lot of time in the stretch of country between Laurel and Lame Deer, Montana, I was able to pinpoint our location as we passed over Pryor Creek, the Bighorn River, Hardin, the Little Bighorn River, Crow Agency, and the Little Big Horn Battlefield, all of which were laid out below me like on an atlas with a scale of one-to-one.
The plane followed Highway 212 as it took off east from the Little Big Horn Battlefield and pretty soon we were directly over Busby, Montana and it was 1993 in my head. Eighteen years ago I spent a month living in the basketball gym of the Busby High School as the teenagers in the program I was running built a playground on some public land in the small town. Busby is the westernmost town on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation and it is a stiflingly poor place. The kids there did what they could to entertain themselves, but there was no playground for them use.
The program I worked for, Visions International, linked with Northern Cheyenne Children’s Services, the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council, and several other local groups to secure use of a plot of land and the rights to build a playground on it. The labor was supplied by 16 teenage volunteers, who were led by me and 4 other staffers. My time in Busby came after three summer programs doing similar work in another Northern Cheyenne town, called Birney.
Today, when I looked down at Busby I could actually SEE the playground we had made all those years ago. It was still there. It looked as if the fence had been scavenged for firewood long ago, but the swing set, slide, and merry-go-round were still there.
Less than five minutes later my eyes followed a particular road south out of Lame Deer until the road intersected with the Tongue River, clearly visible from 30,000 feet. That is where Birney is. Birney is a town with no stores or shops of any kind, no post office, no gas station, and no school. There are about 20 families that live in Birney and even the other Northern Cheyenne who live on the sparsely populated reservation think of it as a backwater. We were too high for me to actually see the playground and powwow arbor we built in Birney, but I didn’t need to. By then, my mind was replaying a particular memory that still has the power to make me smile whenever I allow myself to really inhabit it.
I spent several summers in Indian Birney, sleeping either on the floor of an old doublewide trailer or in the desanctified nave of an old Catholic Church. During my second summer in Birney, the group of teens I was with helped build a traditional powwow arbor on an unused patch of land just off the main drag. As we built it, I knew that my kids were getting an experience few of their peers back East would be able to understand.
They got to go up into the pine forests on the rocky hillsides of the reservation and help choose which trees to fell for use as support posts for the double ring of the arbor. Then they helped strip the branches, dig the post holes, plant the posts, tamp the dirt, tack chicken wire overhead, and lay the pine boughs across the top for shade. It was backbreaking labor and my sixteen wealthy teenagers from the East Coast could not get enough of it. One of my favorite pictures from that summer is of a sixteen year-old girl from the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She is holding a worn and dirty work glove in her teeth, examining the bloody blisters on her hand, and smiling from ear to ear.
It rained a lot that summer, forcing us to delay and cancel many workdays. As the final day of our program approached, we began to seriously think the arbor would not be finished in time for us to participate in the first powwow held in Birney in many years. Our penultimate day on the reservation was a fifteen-hour work marathon that left us all simultaneously exhausted and exhilarated. As the last of the long lingering twilight drained from the sky to the west, we got it done. The arbor was complete.
Some of the tribal members who were working with us had spread the word that there would be a powwow in Indian Birney the next day.
Saturday morning dawned grey, cold, and wet and a feeling of depressed anti-climax settled over us all as we began to pack and get ready for the following day’s drive to the airport in Sheridan, Wyoming and the ensuing flights to points East. We all kept one eye to the sky, but the sky just kept raining on our arbor.
My friend Mike, who lived in Birney, just kept telling me and the kids not to worry. He said the sky would clear, the sun would shine, and the powwow would happen. As morning turned past twelve and into afternoon, the rain kept falling steady as a drum on the church roof. The atmosphere grew more and more disappointed inside as kids played Hearts, took pictures, and copied down each other’s phone numbers for when they got home.
At three o’clock the rain stopped falling. By three-fifteen the clouds were breaking up. And by four we were practically dancing as we set up tables, brewed coffee, and changed into our fancy clothes for the powwow. By five o’clock more than one hundred cars had arrived and there were hundreds of Cheyenne tribal members there to christen the new Birney Powwow Arbor. Elders showed up and thanked my kids in the Cheyenne language, people brought out tons of food from their trunks likes clowns from a circus car. When the buffet tables were all set, we had enough food to feed everyone twice.
My kids participated in giveaways, grass dances, and circle dances set to traditional drumming circles pounding out the heartbeat of a culture determined to survive. Everything stopped at one point and my kids were asked to line up in the center of the arbor. Each of them was then presented with a beautiful hand-beaded gift from the tribe as a way to say “thank you” for all their hard work.
So today, as we flew on east into South Dakota the sky clouded up and I came back into the present, glad as could be to have gotten a window seat.