Purple lightning rips the heavens from top to bottom, tearing the sky in two. Before I finish counting “one”, a wave of thunder punches down, shaking the land with a terrific rumble.
The windshield wipers beat furiously on the glass, but not fast enough. The rain falls like a million white bullets, washing away my vision of the world. All I can see is the flying flood in the air. A man with long black braids leaps for cover. The people hide under tarps and shelters, tents and trucks, watching and waiting in this weather of the August afternoon.
I run from my car and still get soaked; here, beneath the beating tin roof, I hear the songs of the Rocky Boy Pow Wow. Cree and Sioux and Assiniboine, one band after another takes their turn, sitting in a circle around the big round drum, hitting the taut skin with unified rhythm. Their voices rise up in an ancient chorus of joy and pain—together, they sing the oldest songs of this country—melodies that sound like glory and weeping and thrill; rhythms known long before the thud of horses’ hooves and roll of wagon wheels ever came into this land.
On a hill above the pow wow grounds, white canvas teepees mark the Parker-Belcourt Camp. The pine poles stick up from the pointed tents and as the rain dwindles down to a piddle, I catch the conversations of a family reunion in full flow.
In the 21st century, Native Americans camp with waterproof tarps, inflatable mattresses, technical sleeping bags and comfy pillows—just like everybody else. They have coolers and camp stoves and pickup trucks, and just like everybody else, this time of gathering is a time to be together, to enjoy one another’s company—and to talk.
Under a shelter of leafy cottonwood branches, grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles and cousins all talk and play while the newest babies get passed around for the prizes they are.
The medicine man comes at five. Without any fanfare or announcement, the family quiets down and gathers beneath the cottonwood, listening carefully. The foul weather has departed an instead, there are warm gusts of soft wind and a recovering blue sky with wisps of white cloud.
A member of the Chippewa Cree nation of Rocky Boy, Dawn Houle holds her baby—little Madzigaleh Booth or “Madzi”. Her daughter’s given name means “flower” in Tsimshian, the language of her father, whose nation originates in southeast Alaska and eastern British Columbia.
But today, the baby will receive her Cree name—a traditional ceremony for so many Native Americans. Silence has fallen over the extended family and the medicine man is standing before the child, with a kind yet solemn face.
Dressed in a flannel coat, he folds a stretch of bright green cloth around his neck—the color of life and living and the color of Montana in summer.
In one hand, he holds the feather of a golden eagle, and on the ground before him sits a pot of berries. Aromatic sage smoke seeps into the air in white curls, reaching every one of us watching—it is the sweet smell of the prairie and a sacred herb for cleansing, healing and purification.
Dawn holds her already-pure child as the medicine man speaks softly, waving the sage smoke with an eagle feather and giving the baby girl a name that will stay with her forever.
Minutes pass and the ceremony is finished. The family returns to its hum of conversation and the baby’s Aunt Sabel points me to the long table of food and commands, “Go. Eat!”
There is fried chicken and sweet watermelon, boiled potatoes, vegetables, a massive box of Indian fry bread, cookies and pies. It is a summer feast and without lifting a finger, my plate is full and I am sitting in the midst of this great family gathering, surrounded by love and the light of the afternoon sun.
As a stranger from a different world, I am touched to share such a sacred moment with this family. I watch them give traditional gifts to the medicine man—woolen blankets, sweetgrass, tobacco, and more eagle feathers—and thank him for what he has done.
And then he sits down next to me—this older man who serves his nation as a leader and healer and spiritual guide. His name is Walter and the two of us chat across the table. He explains what has transpired here, how he doesn’t know what name a child will have—but must wait and see what comes to him. Then he tells me the name he has given the child.
“Sweetgrass Speaks For Her,” he says plainly—though merely spoken, the name becomes a poem.
I have seen the sweetgrass in Montana—it grows wild here, long, thick and green and perfumed like the sweetest hay or honeyed flower you can imagine. It is sacred around the world but especially for Native Americans who use it in so many ceremonies, burning braids of the green grass and wafting the sweet smoke skyward.
“We use the sweetgrass when we pray,” Walter explains. “Like her name says—the sweetgrass smoke will carry her prayers to the Creator.” Both of us are quiet now, thinking, and then he leaves, bids farewell to the family. As do I.
I move away from the pow wow and the music of drum beats that echo in the vast sweeps of green land around me. After so much rain, the sun is back in charge, and the world is alive with whistling grass and Black-eyed Susans and the pile of untouched hills that turn into the heap of mountains on the horizon, then disappear into the forever blue Montana skies above.