Text by Jerome Tharaud
ROCKY BOY'S INDIAN RESERVATION - A stunning array of reds, ochres, yellows and greens covers the hillsides and coulees at Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation this week. Inside the Rocky Boy Elementary School gymnasium on Thursday morning, it was as bright as the hills outside: the red of the drying meat, the tawny color of freshly tanned hides and the deep purple of ground chokecherries.
As part of the schedule of events for Native American Week, tribal elders have been teaching the old ways - cooking, crafts and games - to Rocky Boy students in the hope that their natural colors will emerge.
"I used to help my mother when I was a girl," said one elder, Mary Lodge Pole, sitting at a table displaying the different stages of tanning leather and making moccasins. "That was how I learned to tan hides but now I'm too old to do it." Lodge Pole said that when she was young she used to support herself by taking things she made to Browning and selling them. Today it's still important for the youth to learn those skills, she said. "So they'll carry on our way of life."
One table over, Theresa Tendoy, 71, sat carving deep red deer meat - wi-yahs - into thin strips to dry on a wooden drying rack while lines of students came by to watch. Tendoy said she has her own rack at home with a fire under it to smoke the meat, and that she taught her granddaughters the process.
"We never used to have refrigerators. We used to smoke it and dry it," she said.
"I'm proud of our food, the way we used to eat a long time ago. ... A long time ago we never used to know anybody that had diabetes," she said.
Tendoy thinks as many young kids are learning the old ways as ever.
Cree teacher Joyce Denny isn't so sure. She was scooping a fragrant purple mulch - mashed chokecherries, or tah-kwe-mi-nah-nah - into bags to be later made into pemmican.
Denny, 42, said not many people her age are fluent in the language like she is, so she usually speaks Cree with her elders. Denny teaches several classes a week in Rocky Boy schools and a three-week Cree immersion language program in the summer, but she said the language is in danger of dying out.
Denny said her students speak Cree to each other, though, and they try hard. Not only the language is at stake, she says. "If you know Indian language, you can understand Indian ways."
Nearby Eddie Whitford helps feed bowls of the chokecherries - handpicked on the reservation - into an electric grinder that has replaced a traditional stone hand grinder. It churns out what looks like bright purple hamburger.
Whitford said he's helping out with "women's work," but said boys on the reservation still learn "hunting and stuff like that" from their fathers.
Lane Lamere, a 10th-grader at Rocky Boy, said he is planning on doing some hunting of his own later in the day - in the greased pig catch scheduled for 11:30 a.m. Thursday.
He said one thing he enjoys about being Indian is being able to go see powwows and to dance. Lamere used to dance - now he prefers the rodeo arena.
Spenser Denny, 16, said he feels most Indian during religious ceremonies.
Denny was in the gymnasium after being beaten handily at hand games by some of the elders.
"I was playing against some old lady," he said. "We lost like five games in a row."
"I'm proud of all of this, man," Denny said, gesturing at the tables. "'Cause you guys have your religion and we have ours."
Denny said sweats and sun dances are among his favorite traditions.
"When you get out of there it's just refreshing," he said, referring to several 15-minute rounds spent praying in a sauna-like sweat lodge. "It's like you just cleansed yourself."
Nearby, Nadine Morsette, 78, showed her bead work to students who passed by. Morsette was an orphan raised by elders, so she learned the old ways and the stories that went with them.
"I want to get these little girls interested in making their own shawls," she said. But she doesn't think one morning is enough - maybe evening classes would be. "If somebody was there for them, I think we could get them interested and carry on our way of life," she said.
To her there's plenty worth saving.
"Me, I think I'm pretty rich. Like I told you, I got 25 great-grandchildren."
Rocky Boy, decked in all its colors, is the place she wants to be.
"It's my home," she said. "I love my home. I'm just so content to be up here."