Dr. Nelson Joins the Indigenous Grandmothers in Lame Deer, Montana

The following article by Susan Olp was published on July 29, 2012 in the Billings Gazette.

The world came to Lame Deer this week.

Click for the Billings Gazette’s Gallery of Photos of the Grandmother Gathering.

The International Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers arrived at the Kenneth Beartusk Memorial Powwow Grounds on Thursday and will remain until Sunday. This 11th gathering of the council is hosted by one of the global grandmothers, Margaret Behan, who lives near Lame Deer.

The council describes itself as “a global alliance of prayer, education and healing for Mother Earth, all her inhabitants and all the children for the next seven generations to come.”

The women from around the world were brought together by the Center for Sacred Studies, a California nonprofit. The native grandmothers come from the United States and Canada, Mexico, South America, Africa and Asia.

For this conference, 10 of the 13 women, many of whom are in their 80s, were able to make the trip. Three could not come for health reasons.

The women are revered for their wisdom and spiritual insights. They have met with top religious leaders, including the Dalai Lama.

On Thursday morning, several hundred people gathered at the powwow grounds for the opening ceremony. Thirteen tepees were constructed outside the arbor to honor the grandmothers. A fire burned in the center of the grounds. A musician sat on the ground, playing a hang, an instrument with a sound similar to a steel drum.

One at a time, the grandmothers, in native dress, walked slowly into the arbor. Many of them leaned on the arms of supporters. The crowd erupted into applause or ululated, trilling a high-pitched sound with their voices. The grandmothers walked to the fire, praying and waving the smoke toward themselves for blessing and purification. Then they made their way to a round table in the shade where they and their entourage seated themselves.

Then, each of the women either prayed or just addressed the crowd, speaking words of thanksgiving, encouragement and blessing. The attentive crowd remained virtually silent for more than an hour.

Grandmother Agnes Baker Pilgrim, who traveled from Grants Pass, Ore., said she wanted to thank the ancient ones of the land “that we’re walking on top of their physical footprints.”

“Thank you, Grandfather Sun, for warming us,” she said. “Thank you, Mother Earth, for sustaining us up to this moment. Thank you for life, for allowing us to take up this little space upon your face.”

Maria Alice Campos-Freire, from Brazil, spoke in Portugese and in English. “I bring my heart of love and peace and that mission of prayer and alliance,” she said. “I come here with much respect for the ancestors of this land. I come with my sisters on this mission of prayer.”

After a talk by a guest speaker on healing generational trauma, people from the crowd could step to a microphone and ask a question, or could talk with the women privately. One young girl sobbed as she spoke to the grandmothers and presented each with a handmade gift. A trio of women tapped on native drums and sang a song in accompaniment.

The four days will include prayer, music and talking. On Saturday, eight riders and a host of supporters will arrive after a two-month horseback journey that originated at Fort Reno, Okla. The 1,391-mile ride, set in motion by Behan, was done in remembrance of the 1878 Cheyenne exodus.

The event was filmed by a two-person film crew from California for a documentary on the ride titled “The Grandmothers’ Horses: The Ride Home.” Behan and members of the Cheyenne Elders Council, which Behan helped form, joined the ride along the way to offer prayers and healing ceremonies.

Behan, whose father is Northern Cheyenne, is an enrolled member of the Southern Cheyenne Tribe.

Behan said people are touched by the council of grandmothers. “I believe it’s because I’m a grandmother, and the love that grandmothers have because we know that definitely we’re contributing to the next generations,” she said. “We have the wisdom of the lives before us.” Behan said that her message is “gratitude brings freedom, and it is the direct way to grow in spirituality.”

A project Behan and the Cheyenne Elders Council completed as part of the 11th council is the creation of the T’sistsistas’s Sacred School near Behan’s home. There, healers of the tribe will teach Cheyenne healing ways to the tribe’s youth.

“It’s a way to help the youth understand their Cheyenne identity,” Behan said. “It will be a sacred school for the youth,” she said. “The gap between the elder and the youth can come together.”

Those who came for the event camped in tents on the powwow grounds. At a lunch break, two of five sisters who drove 12 hours from Saskatchewan and Ontario, Canada, stopped to talk on their way back to their tent.

Joan Sinclair and Pat Gaudet said when they heard the council was going to be held within driving distance, they decided to make the trip.

“When we saw it was in Montana, we said we’d better go,” Sinclair said. “To be in the presence of the grandmothers, where everybody was united, is ‘pretty cool,’” she said.

Gaudet said the teachings of the grandmothers are helpful in living a better life.

“I’m trying to make better decisions in my life,” she said. “I want my family to be happy and healthy in mind, body and soul.”

Click for the Billings Gazette’s Gallery of Photos: Grandmother Gathering.