Bertha Bear Claw’s legacy is tough to describe, but there’s little doubt that it’s easy to see.
On a chilly late March evening, that was evident as a group of the late Lodge Grass teacher’s daughters, nieces and grandchildren gathered at the Billings Public Library to reminisce and tell stories of the woman they describe as a passionate educator, a strong matriarch, a loving role model and a passionate believer in the preservation and sharing of Crow culture.
“We want to carry on — for our kids and our grandkids — everything she did, everything she taught us,” said Cheryl Bear Claw, one of her daughters.
That’s also the approach of the organizers of this weekend’s 46th Annual Montana State University Billings Powwow — which will draw as many as 3,000 visitors, dancers and spectators — as they introduce a new ceremony Saturday called the Bertha Bear Claw Round Dance In Honor of Those Who Can No Longer Dance.
Bear Claw graduated from MSUB when it was still Eastern Montana College. She was a master teacher and traditional Crow dancer who actively participated in the annual powwow, even being honored as its 2011 Head Woman Dancer, leading and energizing dancers through the event.
She died in early 2013 at 73.
Reno Charette, director of MSUB’s Office of American Indian Outreach, said the new round dance named after Bear Claw brings all of the powwow’s former Head Woman Dancers together and begins with the shaking of the hands of elders who aren’t able to dance any more.
She said that bringing in the new dance in Bear Claw’s name is a fitting way to honor her, especially since this year’s powwow theme focuses on celebrating native women.
“We want to showcase her as the face of what our alumni can be,” she said. “Her personal life and her commitment to her culture demonstrate how important her culture was to her and why we want to do that.”
An enrolled member of the Crow Tribe, Bear Claw was born in 1939 in Lodge Grass, where she lived for most of her life.
She earned her bachelor’s degree in elementary education from EMC in 1975.
She taught at Lodge Grass Public Schools for 30 years.
Family members said that teaching about the Crow people was an important part of her lessons.
“She emphasized the Crow culture and the Crow language to natives and non-native students alike,” said Lana Schenderline, her youngest daughter. “She emphasized that a lot and she didn’t leave anybody out.”
She instilled that passion in the numerous children she raised, including five biological children, three step-daughters, seven nieces and nephews and two adopted children, all of whom she called her own.
Bear Claw emphasized education, encouraging them to finish high school and earn college degrees. She also worked to pass along her knowledge and experiences, all the way down to her great-great-grandchildren.
“She was an awesome teacher, not only in education, but in culture,” said Cheryl Bear Claw.
In addition to culture and language, she taught her family members how to make dresses — including elk tooth dresses — and moccasins.
“We all know how to make dresses now,” said Eleanor Kindness, one of Bear Claw’s granddaughters.
Her children said that Bear Claw was an avid powwow attendee, traveling around Montana and to Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Wyoming, Arizona and New Mexico for events, often bringing trunks full of regalia with her.
Crow Fair and Crow Native Days also were special to Bear Claw because the occasions allowed her to proudly parade with her grandchildren, often dressed in homemade regalia.
Kindness said she remembers her grandmother flying out to Massachusetts for her prep school graduation, something she did for all of her kids and grandchildren, and how important of a role she played in her life.
“She’s just a really great role model for women,” Kindness said. “She had it all — education, family, career, she was humble, those basic things in life. She was poised and dignified and, with that, she could teach.”
Much of Bear Claw’s family will attend Saturday’s round dance bearing Bear Claw’s name and, afterwards, they, along with the Medicine Crow family, will sponsor a traditional Crow-style dance immediately following.
“She’d be honored and she’d be really excited about it,” said Schenderline. “She really loved to dance.”