There are two villages called “Birney” in Southeastern Montana. One is on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation and it is called “Indian Birney” by everyone. The other is ten miles south of Indian Birney and it is off the reservation. It is known by all as “White Birney.”
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.
Here it is fifteen years later and whenever I allow myself to really remember the details of that afternoon and evening and late into the night, I cry. It was one of the most authentically touching moments of my life and whenever I need to feel good about the future and about humans’ ability to bridge cultural divides, I dive into my memories of that summer and that particularly magical night.