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Telling the tales, history, meaning of teepees

SHERIDAN — “I’ll only tell you one story today. It’ll take an hour but I’ll only tell you one.”

Dr. Lanny Real Bird got a chuckle from the audience at the Historic Sheridan Inn on Monday night as he opened the presentation at the first ever official teepee raising for the Sheridan WYO Rodeo, but he was only exaggerating a little.

In traditional Indian fashion celebrating spoken word and storytelling, Real Bird told the long tale of First Yellow Leggings, a legendary hero to the Crow people.

According to legend, Yellow Leggings was a great warrior because he was raised by little people in the mountains and the tale of a journey in which he meets a supernatural being named White Owl explains the origin and structure of a Crow style teepee.

 

History of the teepee

A traditional Crow teepee has 21 poles and faces east toward sunrise to show they are going into the future where the days are born.

A traditional Crow teepee is 18 feet, measured in steps from the tie to the rear, except for special ceremonial teepees which measure 21 feet,  better for housing a fire.

A Crow teepee has four base poles where other tribes use three, a system created by Yellow Leggings’ great journey.

The four poles represent the cardinal directions and the seasons, east is spring, south is summer, west is fall and north is winter.

The teepee is one of three mothers of the Crow people.

Their first mother is the one that brings you into the world. The second mother is the teepee and the third is Mother Nature.

“You will always have a mother when a teepee is there to protect you, the teepee protects our children from the elements,” Real Bird said. “Whichever one, the people of the earth will always have a mother thanks to these three.”

Each time a pole is put up, it is done so in a pair creating an “X” to create strength for the lodge.

Each pole has a name, some inherent to the teepee and some reserved to be named by the owner of the teepee. Some poles of the teepee at the Inn represent happiness and good health and the owner named others in honor of the buffalo and the elk.

 

Future of the teepee

Butch Jellis was the first white man to get a tribal ID from the Crow chief.

After being adopted into the Crow nation 20 years ago, Sings With the Eagle — Jellis’ Crow name — began work to bring the nearby nations to Sheridan.

In 2003, Jellis adopted a crow daughter — which in Crow tradition is similar to the concept to being a godparent — where as if something happens to her birth father, Jellis is responsible for her and her family, though she is a grown woman.

Jellis said the concept is much more spiritual to the Crow than that of a godparent and he wanted to share this tradition with the people of Sheridan.

A traditional celebratory parade was held to introduce his new daughter to the community of Sheridan and 150 people attended the inaugural parade.

In the years since, the Crow have participated in the rodeo week parade and immediately followed the parade with a powwow on Grinnell Street.

The event became more popular and crowded through the years and this year Jellis asked Bob Townsend, new owner of the Historic Sheridan Inn, if the powwow could be held there.

Though in the past the community has joined in the celebration, this year the teepee raising with explanation of traditions and beliefs was added to further introduce Crow culture to Sheridan County.

“The greatest thing that can come out of this is not only the people that remember the days when the Indians used to come to town to see it again, but also to see the kids join the dance and pick up the traditions for future generations,” said Jellis. “They are the way of life; they were here first.”

The event was well-attended and audience members were pulled in to help tell the tale of Yellow Leggings and also to learn the steps to traditional powwow dances, including the Crow Hop and Circle Dances.

The official powwow will still follow the parade similar to past years, but will be bigger this year than ever before.

In the parade will be 50 warriors on horseback with 10 outriders at their sides.

Once back at the Inn, the large gathering of Native Americans will replicate a photograph taken more than a hundred years ago with Indians lined up in front of the Inn.

The powwow will begin immediately following the parade and a free trolley will be available to shuttle attendees from Grinnell Plaza to the Inn.

Jellis said the Townsends have already asked them to return next year for the teepee raising and powwow.

“Did you see the twinkle in their eyes as they listened to the story and watched the dances?” Jellis asked. “Did you ever know there was so much behind each part of the teepee? We will definitely do this again next year.”

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