We are awed, and we are grateful.
The stunning display of teepees on the Rims in Swords Park, brought to Billings by the Pretty Shield Foundation and Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council, would be a deeply moving cultural experience for thousands of people — even if the display did not carry special meaning this pandemic year.
But it does.
It is a fitting and deeply moving memorial to the victims of COVID, in this town, in this state, everywhere.
In Montana alone, more than 75,000 of us have been sickened and nearly 900 have died, leaving thousands of Montanans mourning family members who should still be with us in the flesh as well as in spirit.
It is inescapable that this terrible toll has been borne unevenly. Native Americans are seven percent of us in this state; but they have suffered more than a quarter of the sickness, more than a quarter of the loss.
So much in this is testimony to other disproportionately shared burdens — to the failures of our health care system that have created a huge lifespan disparity between Natives and non-Natives in this state; to the unequally shared burdens of poverty, unemployment, lack of educational opportunity, lack of entrepreneurial opportunity. To the tacit racism of “the system” as it has existed in the state and the country for decade upon decade.
The bright symbols of shelter and hope on the Rims represent a triumph of the spirit over such inequity.
Gerald Gray, chairman of the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council, said it best.
“When the teepees go up, we all unite together,” said Gray. “We are one. We are all family, everyone.”
May we all follow this dreadful, hollowing-out year with new resolve to spend our remaining time on this earth in harmony, comity and togetherness.