From July 19th to the 24th, I spent time at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church on Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation with a group from my internship site, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Lancaster, PA. We worked on some projects that needed doing around the church, and we got to know some of the people of the Chippewa-Cree tribe. Here, in no particular order, are some of my reflections and observations from this time:
Reflections on my time at Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation
The Native Americans who live at Rocky Boy’s are of the Chippewa-Cree tribe. The story they tell of how they came to this place is that many of their people were wandering around from place to place. The federal government wanted to stop them from wandering around, and offered them land to settle down in. The people did not like the land, and they continued looking for a place that they could live and they continued negotiating with the government. Finally, they settled on the land which is now known as Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation in Montana. It is named after Chief Rocky Boy. Their hopes for us in the time that we stayed at the reservation is that we would come to know that everything: sun, moon, wind, rain, and so on, is a blessing from God.
While there, our group was privileged to participate in an Indian naming ceremony. The elder who did this for us had us sit in a circle. He lit a braid of sweet grass, which is sacred to them and used for blessing, said a prayer in the Cree language, and then went around the circle and gave each one of us a name in his language, and a color. There was silence as he did this, and a sense of anticipation as he paused before giving a person a name, and then a sense of joy as each name was uttered. Although I have never given birth myself, this is what the ceremony felt like to me: that he was giving birth to each one of us as one with him and his tribe. My name is We-kus-ka-tak-o-nah, which translates to, “One Who Carries Sweet Grass,” and my color is green. Each year I am supposed to send this elder a piece of green cloth, which he will then take to a hidden place, tie around a tree, and pray for me. I’m also supposed to wear green, which is a difficulty for me since green has never been my favorite color and I have very few items in my wardrobe that are green. This elder, by naming each one of us, became something equivalent to the Christian idea of a godfather to each of us. Since sweet grass is sacred and used in prayer, I think that the name he gave me is appropriate for God’s calling upon my life as a pastor. The next day, we stopped by the place where he lives, walked down through long grass to a spring on his property, and drank of the purest and cleanest water I have ever tasted in my life.
One of the tribe who we met told us that on birthdays and other milestones in a person’s life, it is not the custom for the person who hit the milestone to receive gifts. Instead, it is customary for the person to give gifts to other people. This then becomes a status symbol in the community, and the next person to hit a milestone has to one-up the other person. I wondered if this tied in somehow to the times that we prepared a meal for people who had been invited to come and talk to us or demonstrate some aspect of Native American culture for us: that perhaps providing a meal for the community showed that the church had some status in the community.
I noticed that the people used the designations “Native American,” “American Indian,” and “Indian,” interchangeably. What they really prefer is to be known by their individual tribe: Cree, or Chippewa, for instance. But that seemed difficult for me to remember, because there were some individuals from other tribes who had come to live on the reservation. Another thing that was interesting is that, if you were from another tribe, it seemed you were somewhat accepted, but you could not get a job on the reservation.
Gambling, which is what many Native American tribes are known for, is allowed on Rocky Boy’s and there are one or two small establishments on the reservation. However, since Montana’s gambling laws are pretty loose—seriously, every gas station in Montana has a casino—these establishments are not money makers for the tribe, and often cause more difficulty and hardship than they do profit.
The reservation does have its own school; however, some people send their children off-reservation to public schools. The reason I heard given for this is that discipline is lax in the reservation school. In an effort to get people to not send their children off-reservation, school buses from outside are not allowed to come on to the reservation. But, people simply drive their cars to the border to drop off and pick up their kids from the bus stop.
The reservation is like a foreign country, but one for which you do not need a passport and one in which English is spoken. Once on the reservation, you are governed by the laws of the tribe. The ambulance, police, and other public services are run by the tribe.
The last night there, a group came to demonstrate what a powwow is like. Several people dressed in traditional Indian regalia and danced to the beat of a drum and a group of people who were singing along with the drum.
One beautiful woman had a bald eagle feather in her hair and fan made of golden eagle feathers. The eagle is sacred to the people, and since the bald eagle is protected, it is very difficult to get their feathers. There is a complicated process by which one must apply for a feather, and that person is very lucky if he or she receives one. During the powwow demonstration, an eagle flew overhead as if to bless us.
There is an enormous respect for elders. The elders get to eat first and they generally get the best of anything. There is also an enormous respect for those Native Americans who serve in the military: veterans are honored and those who have died are remembered often. We non-Natives could learn from the people in these two respects.
The people do believe in a Creator God, but sometimes mean different things when referring to Jesus and the Holy Spirit, so if there is any doubt in a conversation, it’s probably a good thing to clarify what each of you means. I was surprised, when I went to the worship service at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, to find the congregation worshiping according to a traditional setting in our hymnal. I guess I was expecting something a little more flavored with their tribal culture. But, aside from specific Native American decorations in the sanctuary, the service was a familiar Lutheran service.
My biggest fear when I went to the reservation was this: How can I, as a white person, presume to be on a reservation and learn from and work with Native Americans when my ancestors did such horrible things to their ancestors? What I found was a people very gracious in receiving me and eager to tell their stories and to have me learn from them. There seemed to be a desire among the people for recovering their past while living into the future with their traditional ways. I would encourage anyone who is able to go to a reservation and spend time with the people there. I myself hope to be able to return and learn even more about these wonderful people.