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"Symbols of Hope" teepees erected on Billings Rimrocks to remember COVID-19 victims

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Posted at 7:04 AM, Dec 21, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-21 09:04:13-05

BILLINGS — On top of the Billings Rimrocks in Swords Park, seven teepees were set up Saturday and lit with colored lights to honor people who are struggling with or have passed away from COVID-19.

William Snell, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leadership Council, helped organize the project called, Lighting of the Teepees, Symbols of Hope. Q2 Spoke with Snell on Sunday while he was driving in extra stakes to keep the teepees secure in the day's high winds.

"We thought it was appropriate, I think, for the communities, for the state and then for the world. Just our way as American Indian people of giving people a ray of hope, support and love during troubled times," Snell said from within a teepee to get out of the wind.

A group of about 20 volunteers helped erect the teepees on Saturday. Snell said some people stopped to lend a hand after seeing the teepees from Airport Road.

Among other symbols woven into the teepees themselves, Snell said one symbol he hopes the project brings is honor to those who have lost their lives to COVID-19.

"Since it’s real close to the holidays, of course we want to not forget about the Creator and what he’s done for us. We want to make sure that we can continue to pray for those people who are struggling with COVID-19 and those that have passed away. We want to honor them as well," Snell said.

Snell is also the president of the Pretty Shield Foundation, which helped pay for a majority of the permitting costs. Other organizations involved were the Harry L. Willett Foundation, Sky Wind World Inc., Billings Logan International Airport, MetraPark and Billings Parks and Recreation.

Snell said the community response to the project was overwhelming.

"The response was great. A lot of people weren’t able to get in last night because there were so many vehicles here. A lot of people said they cried. They were bringing rocks, complimenting on its beauty. It’s a perfect time to give that ray of hope to people," Snell said.

Some people left rocks that had the names of lost loved ones near the entrances of the teepees, Snell said.

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The doorway of a teepee in the "Symbols of Hope" project on top of the Billings Rimrocks.

Each of the seven teepees are 18 feet high and constructed with 18 foot lodge poles in the Crow and Blackfeet style. The first four lodge poles that go up are tied together. The rest are laid around the bundle without added support. Snell said those first four lodge poles carry symbolism.

“Four is a pretty meaningful number to us. It means all races: red, yellow, black and white. Also, four seasons: spring, summer, autumn, and winter. Also it has a real symbolism of the cycle of life, which means youth or children, adolescents, young adults and elders," Snell said.

Snell added that the doorway symbolizes a bear and cougar for strength and speed. The flaps on the top can be symbolized as owls or coyotes, Snell said.

“You have to have a little bit of humor from the coyotes and a little gesturing that keeps life happy and interesting," Snell said.

Around the holiday season, Snell said he hopes the teepees will help people honor those who have passed.

"COVID-19 has taken a lot of our family members and relatives. There’s some trauma involved with that. A great deal of trauma. We can’t forget about that. We don’t want to forget about that," Snell said.

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Flags tied to the top of the "Symbols of Hope" teepees blow in the wind on top of the Billings Rimrocks Sunday.