Reconnecting with the Sacred
August 18, 2023
Reconnecting with the Sacred: A Visit to the Blackfeet Ceremonial Summer Camp
Michael Painter, Managing Director, Programs
Between July 19-25, 2022, Nia Tero’s Blackfeet Nation partners held their annual summer circle camp just outside Browning, Montana. The Blackfoot people call this camp Akao’katsin, or “time of all people camping together.” It is an incredibly important time of the year for the Blackfeet Nation, during which they come together to renew their sacred connections to the world. Our Blackfeet partners, Tyson and Lona Running Wolf, invited Nia Tero to participate this year. Others from Nia Tero have also participated in past years.
The Blackfoot people call themselves Niitsítapii, meaning “real person.” Their traditional territory was extensive spanning what is now known as Montana including Glacier National Park and parts of Canada. Despite facing centuries of attacks against their lives and culture, they resiliently managed to preserve their sacred knowledge by sharing their stories and values through generations. Now they continue working to revive their self-identity and to restore their sense of being Niitsítapii.
Tyson and Lona Running Wolf are directors of The Blackfoot Eco Knowledge (BEK), an organization that has developed projects aimed at reconnecting the Blackfeet People with their culture and reversing the impact of historical trauma to restore their bio-cultural diversity.
The camp is a large circle of about 20 or 30 lodges. Each family sets up their own lodge space at the edge of the circle. Much time is spent outside the inner circle with family and relatives, talking, laughing, connecting. Each clan space has a camp kitchen where communal meals are prepared.
The inner circle of the camp is sacred ground and photographs of this space are not allowed. This space includes ceremonial dancing grounds and sacred society lodges for the Horn Society and Brave Dog Society, as well as a medicine lodge. The sacred societies have been keepers of the Blackfeet’s ceremonial knowledge after their rituals were banned by the US government during colonial times when they were almost entirely lost.
All who enter the sacred space each day are invited to enter a sacred lodge and approach a bundle holder clan, asking for prayers and painting of one’s face. Nia Tero attendees participated in the face painting. This face painting part of the ceremony is incredibly moving—a critical part of renewing sacred connections with deep restorative implications. It also is an outward demonstration of the peoples’ commitment to resilience and determination.
The face painting is based on a central, sacred story of the young man, “Scarface,” and his determination to pursue a long journey to meet the Sun and marry the girl he loved. This journey brings him to a battle with a flock of evil birds. He defeats them. The painted faces can represent the blood from that battle. Once painted, each of us wore our paint for the remainder of the ceremonies and dancing until after sunset. Photos of our painted faces are not allowed. Many take the paint off using their blankets and then keep those blankets year after year. Some wrap themselves in their ceremony blanket with the face paint and then use that blanket to protect them throughout the year.
Entering the sacred Horn Society lodge and receiving the face painting with such generosity was a powerful, even disorienting experience. Inside the lodge each clan has opened its specific sacred medicine bundle. The bundles represent powerful connection to land and ancestors. Each participant decides as they enter the lodge which bundle clan leader they will ask for face painting that day. Blackfeet believe that the space inside the lodge with the opened sacred bundles – which are only opened this one time per year – is a place of great power. The Blackfeet people believe or understand that the opening of the bundles in this sacred lodge space physically and meta-physically changes that space in the lodge. They might describe that change as literally changing gravity or polarities. I witnessed that there was a deeply disorienting, powerful feeling there.
Blackfeet Peoples return buffalo to tribal lands
Earlier in the summer, at the end of June 2023, the Blackfeet Nation also transferred more than 30 wild buffalo to tribal lands near Chief Mountain, an area of sacred cultural significance in the Blackfeet reservation, in what is presently known as Montana. The release of buffalo – iinii in the Blackfeet language – is a powerful act of reclamation and sovereignty, as Lauren Monroe Jr., the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council Vice Chairman, explained at the occasion: “It’s an act of sovereignty and rights historical wrongs.”
The return of the buffalos happens more than a century after the animals were on the edge of extinction. The same colonial US policies that tried to eliminate the Blackfeet people also targeted and almost eliminated the bison. Similarly, it’s not an accident that the return of the people’s wisdom and societies is happening concurrently with the return of the bison to sacred lands.
Nia Tero supports the cultural resurgence of Blackfeet Nation and the return of the bison to sacred lands. The Blackfoot Confederacy is part of the Wayfinders Circle, a global network dedicated to unleashing the transformative potential of Indigenous lifeways, inspiring all people to reimagine development, conservation, and the way they relate to each other and to Mother Earth.