Natives celebrate return of sacred bundle: Spirits Back Home


Last Updated: 5 years

Spirits are being awakened for the first time in 60 years.

I can see it in the faces of those around me, Blackfoot Indians from both sides of the border, gathering on Canada Day at a ranch in northern Montana to celebrate the return of a vital link to their past.

The men sit nearest the fire, the women forming a circle behind them. Sweetgrass burns and turns to ash, filling the teepee with an ancient aroma.

Expressions filled with reverence and awe, their attention is fixed on a metre-long stone and reed pipe, decorated with the mummified head of a harlequin duck on one end, and a fan of eagle feathers on the other.

Picture of Elk Head and the Sacred Pipe Bundle

Elk Head and the Sacred Pipe Bundle

Named after the last holy man to possess it, the Theodore Last Star thunder medicine pipe was an essential part of Blackfoot spiritual beliefs dating to times of the buffalo hunt.

After falling into disuse from cultural degradation, the pipe and bundle of religious artifacts, including rattles and braided animal hides, were sold to a private collector, then sold again to the Provincial Museum of Alberta in Edmonton, where they languished for more than a decade before making the long journey back.

The bundle’s homecoming and first ceremonial opening since 1942 is being witnessed by 200 people, Blackfoot from Alberta and Montana (who call themselves Blackfeet) and a significant minority of non-natives like myself.

Some have come for physical healing. Others have come for the healing of the soul.

“These are holy bundles given to us by the Creator to hold our people together,” explains tribe member Patricia Deveraux, as she waits outside the teepee, craning her neck to see what is going on inside.

“They’re the same as the relics from the Catholic Church,” continues the pleasant, round-faced woman of 36, whose faith straddles Catholicism and Blackfoot spirituality with equal vigour. “They are a demonstration of the holy spirit. They can heal people.”

Before the day is over, she will “dance with the pipe” — a primal ceremony channelling positive energy from her ancestors through the sacred object — while she prays to the spirits to help family members through troubled times.

Les Whitford is a testament to its healing power. The 50-year-old Cree-Chippewa Indian, who isn’t even a member of the Blackfoot tribe, lost one kidney to cancer and found out a year ago he had a spot on the other. After making a vow to dance at the bundle opening, a checkup four months ago showed the spot had disappeared. “As far as I am concerned, it can perform miracles,” he says.

They are among 17 who have made vows to perform the traditional Blackfoot healing dance. It’s an unusually large number which promises to keep the ceremony going late into the night.

“The people believe it’s very powerful because it’s the only medicine bundle that has made it back to Montana from your museum in Edmonton,” bundle keeper Bob Burns tells me.

“It’s an important part of getting back our culture. The healing has already begun.”

Burns, a descendent of Last Star, gained possession of the bundle as a result of a rather creative application of Alberta’s two-year-old native ceremonial artifact repatriation legislation.

Narcisse Blood, of southern Alberta’s Blood tribe, which played a key role in its return to the Montana tribe, regrets that it took so long. “If you are Catholic, you can go to mass whenever you want,” he says. “Yet we had to go through so much trouble and heartbreak for something that is such a natural part of our culture.”

Links to the Past

I meet Bob Burns and his wife, Charlene, for the first time the night before at the Babb Bar and Cattle Baron, one of the three restaurants the couple run along with their ranch on the Blackfoot reservation just east of Glacier National Park.

As Charlene fills bags with groceries in preparation for the bundle opening, Bob tells me about his great-uncle, Theodore Last Star, Blackfoot religious leader, tour guide, historian and bit actor in early westerns.

A photo display on the wall of the bar depicts the local legend in full native headdress and buckskin from his Hollywood scenes, including a role with the legendary Shirley Temple. Bob Burns, 59, with long raven-black braids and cleft chin, bears a striking resemblance to the man in the photographs.

After Theodore Last Star’s first wife died in the 1940s and he married a strong Catholic, the medicine bundle sat dormant until his death in the 1960s. His second wife’s children sold it for $5,000 to collector Bob Scriver in the 1970s.

Blackfoot traditionalists believe religious items cannot be owned by individuals, but are held by “keepers” for the good of the tribe.

“Do I own it or does it own me?” Burns asks.

Traditional Dress

People start arriving at the Burns ranch mid-morning on July 1, half-ton trucks bouncing over possibly the roughest five-kilometre stretch of road in Montana. Many licence plates are from Alberta.

The women are exquisitely clad in colourful long dresses, hair covered by bright kerchiefs, hand-woven shawls wrapped around their shoulders. The men kick off cowboy boots and put on beaded moccasins, draping blankets over their shoulders and around their waists.

Thunder pipe bundle openings are all the same. But there are differences unique to the contents of the individual bundles.The central item is the pipe, which, according to legend, was given to the people by thunder and is as old as creation itself.

Other items — rattles, animal skins, feathers — correspond to dreams and visions of the bundles’ keepers and have unique songs and rituals which go with them. Traditionally, each Blackfoot extended family or clan had a spiritual leader and bundle keeper.

I ask Leonard Bastien, former chief of the Alberta Piegan in Brocket who is conducting the ceremony, how much he knows about the Last Star bundle rituals. He grins and crooks his thumb and finger to show about a centimetre of daylight between them.

“About this much,” he says. “But I’m still the boss.” It’s not a boast but a self-deprecating expression of how much more there is to know.

Thunder pipe bundles are opened every year in the spring or early summer after the first thunder. Although the Blackfoot elders are sympathetic, they insist the ceremony and the pipe cannot be photographed.

At 15 minutes before noon, Bob and Charlene Burns emerge from their ranch house — Bob, in front, clutching a fan of eagle feathers to his chest, Charlene, in a burst of yellow floral patterns and red tartan, following with the bedroll-sized bundle on her shoulders. They march slowly and silently to the teepee about 50 metres away to begin the ceremony.

Songs and Feasting

The primitive songs rise like wood smoke. Some are haunting screeches, some are low throaty hymns, some rhythmic war whoops. Some 30 are sung while the elk skin cover of the bundle is unrolled and each item laid out on top of it in its proper place.

There are two teepees pushed together — the large one for the elders conducting the ceremony, the smaller one for the helpers. The guests sit in chairs lined up outside.

After about an hour, the helpers pass out plastic bowls and begin filling them with berry soup, a dessert-like mixture of local saskatoon berries in sweet syrup.

“It’s for cleansing,” a helper says, instructing me to take out the largest berry and bury it as a sacrifice. Why do the bowls come with lids? “So you can take it with you,” she replies. “You won’t want to eat it all at once. It’s a laxative.”

The berry soup is followed by a feast of buffalo ribs, potatoes, sausages and boiled eggs.

The helpers then pass out bags of groceries for the guests to take home — fruit, canned goods, packages of macaroni, pastries and candy. Blackfoot tradition dictates that the bundle keeper takes responsibility for the physical needs of the guests as well as the spiritual needs. Veteran guests come prepared, bringing large cloth sacks to haul away their take. Nothing is to be left over.

With the bundle open and the food blessed and distributed, the individual blessings and medicine dances begin.

During a break, an elder looking no more than 30 explains the importance of the spiritual revival going on in the native communities across North America.

“When you look at the problems affecting our people, it’s mainly alcohol and drugs,” says the young man, dressed in black from head to foot, who gives his name only as Chris. “Why is that? Because of a loss of a sense of purpose. This gives us purpose. These are powerful objects that we pray with and they get their power from those who have prayed with them before us.”

Individual Blessings

I line up with the others — native and non-native alike — for my individual blessing, kneeling as a sign of humility while draped in a brightly coloured blanket to show obedience.

Peter Weasel Moccasin from the Blood tribe in Alberta touches my shoulders and the back of my head with the pipe stem. He recites the blessing in the Blackfoot language and dips his right thumb into a rust-coloured paste of buffalo grease and ashes, smearing it on my face — an arch on my forehead, a line following my chin and crosses on each side of my mouth.

On his instructions, I cup my hands over his head and make an arching motion, gathering the spiritual energy of our combined auras. He clutches his hands in front of his chest and says in English: “Hold it to your heart.” I do as he tells me.

The face painting, an acknowledgement of having received the blessing, is followed by the healing dances, a bouncing two-step on blankets draped over the floor of the teepee while clutching the pipe to the sound of drums and singing. The pipe, made of reeds and stone and brightly decorated with feathers, beads, brass bells and dyed animal skins, is not smoked. It looks like a musical instrument. It doesn’t have a bowl. It’s unclear if it ever did.

The 17 who made vows to dance wait patiently for their turns. Each brings blankets, some bring cigarettes, symbolizing the tobacco leaves that were traditionally wrapped in the medicine bundles to preserve their contents.

“It’s a great feeling,” says Scott Wetsel, a 24-year-old father of two, who danced for healing after injuring his back at work. “You can really feel the spirit working.”

Precious Artifacts

My interest in Blackfoot medicine bundles began as a quest of curiosity rather than a search for spiritual enlightenment.

While researching the First Nations Sacred Ceremonial Objects Repatriation Act, passed by the Alberta legislature in the spring of 2000, I stumbled across an unexplainable contradiction. The legislation, intended to return native religious artifacts to their original owners, applied only in Alberta. Therefore, it would have no bearing on the treasure trove from the Montana Blackfeet laying in storage at the Provincial Museum of Alberta.

The collection, including 1,500 individual items and six medicine bundles, had been purchased by the museum for $1.1 million US in 1988 from Bob Scriver, a musician and artist from Browning, Mont., at the centre of the reservation.

In his history and picture book called The Blackfeet: Artists of the Northern Plains, Scriver describes the Last Star bundle as “the best of the best…created by people with an artistic sense who strove to produce an object of real beauty and great power.” Scriver, who died three years ago, valued it at $125,000.

The Montana Blackfoot had been stymied for a decade in their attempts to get their artifacts back. But their efforts gained momentum after stories about their predicament appeared in The Journal in March 2001, including a comment from Premier Ralph Klein, a convert to native spirituality, calling on Alberta officials to “extend the spirit” of the legislation south of the border.

With a new sense of co-operation from provincial bureaucrats, the Montana tribe skirted the legal hurdle barring the bundle’s removal from the province by having their Alberta cousins on the Blood reserve repatriate the bundle from the museum on their behalf. Burns drove it down to the U.S. last September, getting it past border guards who were either sympathetic or indifferent to its contents.

A Good Day

With the sun now long gone over the mountains and the wood fire in the teepee burning out, the pipe and other sacred items are put back on the elk skin and bundled up until the first thunder next spring. The helpers distribute the blankets and the cigarettes.

“What did you think of it?” asks one precocious 11-year old, a grandson of Bob Burns. “Pretty cool, huh?”

Yes, pretty cool.

The Alberta tribe members leave first, anxious to get to the border before the crossing closes at 11 p.m.

Everyone rises out of respect as George Kicking Woman gets up. The octogenarian Blackfoot spiritual leader, the last holy man who knows all the songs and rituals, has been sitting at the front all day quietly offering guidance.

I first met George Kicking Woman on a blustery January day in his cabin in Browning, where he was lamenting the loss of Blackfoot culture to the Edmonton museum.

As he leaves, I approach and grasp his hand. He responds with a grin of recognition.

“It is a good day,” he says.


© Copyright 2002, Edmonton Journal

Journal writer Larry Johnsrude wrote in March 2001 about the problems the Montana Blackfeet had recovering sacred artifacts housed in the Provincial Museum of Alberta. He was recently invited to attend the ceremonies celebrating their return.