BILLINGS — Seven teepees atop the Billings Rimrocks in Swords Park were taken down Sunday, but their rock rings will remain to continue to honor those in the community who have passed away from COVID-19.
“When we thought of doing this, we didn’t realize the impact that it was going to have on the community. We knew it was going to have a little bit, but not this huge," said Karen Snell, board member for the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council.
From December 19 to Sunday, the teepees towered over the landscape in the park and were lit with multicolored lights at night. The project titled, Lighting of the Teepees, Symbols of Hope was organized by the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council and Pretty Shield Foundation.
William "Bill" Snell was a major driving force in the project that took about 20 volunteers to assemble and disassemble. Karen is his wife.
“The reason why, we were just losing a lot of people. There was a lot of hurt taking place around Montana. We just thought if there’s any little bit of hope or comfort that we can provide, lets do it," Karen said.
The community seemingly enjoyed the display, with night time traffic in Swords Park often becoming heavy when the teepees were lit up. People started leaving rocks around the perimeter of the teepees painted with the names of loved ones who passed away throughout the year.
Even more people heard of the symbols of hope through the news, with pictures of the teepees popping up in publications across the country.
The large positive response was unexpected, said Les Left Hand, teepee volunteer and program director the the Northern Cheyenne partnership for success in the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council.
“We didn’t really expect that. We were just doing it for the community and of course for the pandemic, the one that’s been taking all of these lives. It was just very powerful to see the community coming together as a whole. Just everybody, not just the Native community, but everybody as a whole from across all races, religions and all of that. It brought unity up, that was kind of the goal we had," Left Hand said.
In the Sunday wind, the teepee's stakes were pulled from the ground, canvasses rolled up and lodge poles taken down. The painted rocks will remain on the city park grounds to still honor those who have passed away, Karen said.
“The rocks are going to stay here in the form that they are. People can still bring up rocks if they feel they want to. There’s different people that have committed to come up maybe once or twice a week to pick up garbage that might have come across, but we’re hoping that it will stay. Our plan is that it still stays, it still brings comfort and hope to people," Karen said.
For a few short weeks, teepees on top of the rims was a center of hope and a place for people to grieve. For Left Hand, the power of prayer was palpable at the site.
"The other part is we’re still honoring all of the ones that have survived as well because there are some awesome stories that we’ve heard from people that did beat the virus or some other ailment that survived because of the prayers and all that that everybody had. Overall, the power of prayer was the main thing that has taken place that I’ve seen as well," Left Hand said.
Left Hand said some of the rocks left by people had special colors that are associated with specific Indigenous families. A few times while he was supervising the display, people requested the lights be changed to their family colors, which he happily obliged.
“Some of these rocks that you see even have the family colors to them because of whatever tribe they are, there are certain colors that is owned by a family. That is the meaning behind some of these rocks as well," Left Hand said. “Even the colors at night, sometimes people requested different colors for family members. So we would do that just for a half hour or so and change the colors. That was a neat part about having interchangeable lights as well.”
Left Hand said there have been many people asking if the teepees will be put up again next year. He couldn't give an exact date to look for the teepees next year, but said the team now knows what it takes to put them up, so they can start planning for next year.
“I think we’ve started a good thing here to where it’s going to continue throughout the years because there was so much requests to leave them up through the year. But I think for now we’ve kind of got a starting point and logistics-wise we’ve got to figure out what we want to do and go from there," Left Hand said.