While unseasonably cold rain fell and a chilly wind cut through boots and gloves, those gathering around Apsaalooké Crow elder Grant Bulltail shared the warmth of togetherness as he led the …
While unseasonably cold rain fell and a chilly wind cut through boots and gloves, those gathering around Apsaalooké Crow elder Grant Bulltail shared the warmth of togetherness as he led the group in his final ceremonial pipe lighting.
Unable to make the trek up Heart Mountain trail due to wet trails, more than 50 people from as far away as Maine and California braved Saturday’s cold to share in Bulltail’s final ceremonial lighting, highlighted by song and wisdom. The elder surprised the group by announcing his retirement from his tribal duties during the ceremony.
“I don’t have the energy to do this anymore,” he said. “I’m thankful that people thought I was worthy to carry a pipe.”
Bulltail is one of only four pipe lighters in the Crow Nation, having led ceremonies for more than two decades. He’ll relinquish his duties Friday in a tribal celebration at home.
The elder has many times come to perform his sacred duties at the Heart Mountain Ranch Preserve — ancestral Crow range that was off-limits until being purchased by The Nature Conservancy 20 years ago and opened for public use.
“People have the tendency to spread bad energy. It surrounds us and brings us bad luck and misfortune,” Bulltail said. “When the leader carries the pipe, the bad energy goes through the pipe and comes out as new energy. Powerful forces come out. It’s not about the tobacco.”
Bulltail lit the pipe four times, singing a sacred song before each lighting. The wind made the task difficult, but despite the chill, the crowd remained silent to observe Bulltail’s ritual and hear his eloquent stories.
In the past decade of ceremonies on the mountain, Bulltail and event organizers Mary Keller and Laura Scheiber have watched participation grow from just a handful of folks. This year, they not only had their largest crowd, but also had more tribal members in attendance. Tribal member and event volunteer Noel Two Leggins relishes in watching interest in Crow culture grow.
“Every year we’ve brought more people and new faces are here,” Two Leggins said. “Before, few had heard about this, but now back home the young people ask about [the ceremony]. It is having an impact on Crow country. Good news spreads fast.”
Dancers thrilled the crowd Friday night before a seminar exploring the significance of Heart Mountain to Prairie Indians. Keller, adjunct associate professor at the University of Wyoming, and Scheiber, director of the anthropology department at the University of Indiana, ensure education is a big part of the annual weekend. Keller said they are already planning for next year’s celebration — the 10th anniversary of the event — and hope to open it up to other educational experiences.
“Over time we hope to open this up for stories from other cultures. There are at least 14 tribes that have stories about Heart Mountain,” Keller said. “Anybody that was doing travel or trade in the area knew [the mountain].”
The ceremony was held at the Big Quiet Camping facilities near the mountain, due to weather concerns and as a convenience to Bulltail. In past years he would lead the ceremony in a meadow on the trail to Heart Mountain’s summit. Recently it has become increasingly difficult for him to make the trip. During the ceremony he occasionally struggled to find words.
He said in the past a leader would have to prove himself worthy of carrying a pipe through a series of four tests, including taking a weapon away from an an enemy that’s trying to kill you, striking an enemy with a coup stick and to lead a war party.
“Today we inherit it from the old people,” he said.
At the end of the ceremony, Bulltail invited those in attendance to dance. The crowd shed their blankets and sleeping bags and slowly danced in a circle during the final song.
“When you dance, you dance for those who can’t,” Two Leggins said. “You don’t just dance, you pray and connect with your culture. When their feet hit the ground while dancing, they’re letting mother earth know everything is OK.”
Due to bear activity in the vicinity, the trail to the summit of Heart Mountain is temporarily closed to the public. Other activities at the preserve continue, with The Nature Conservancy planning its annual community hike on Saturday.