PRYOR, MONT. ? Tepees protected generations of Crow against mountain blizzards and searing high plains sun.
Now members of the southern Montana tribe are looking to their portable homes as a shelter from poverty and 60 percent unemployment rates, as four tribal entrepreneurs work to set up a company to assemble and market the traditional dwelling.
Founders of the fledgling Pryor Tepee Company asked community members for help to launch the project at a December feast in Pryor. The group recently received a $10,000 feasibility study grant from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) and ? depending on the outcome of the study ? hopes to ship its first tepee in late spring.
Those behind the project believe success will come from its simplicity.
The Crow know how to build tepees ? they have been doing it for centuries ? and the two-million acre reservation is loaded with the necessary labor and natural resources, said Marlan Goes Ahead, one of the project's four founders.
Although the tepee market is crowded ? there are more than 30 manufacturers in the country charging from $300 to more than $1,000 ? most are owned by non-Indians.
With more people moving to the West, the tepee market continues to grow, Goes Ahead said. "A lot of these people want things that are built by Native Americans."
Goes Ahead grew up making tepees and continues the tradition with his children. At the end of June, when the snow melts from mountain roads and sap flows freely beneath the bark of lodgepole pine, Goes Ahead drives into the Pryor Mountains to cut the 18 poles needed for a tepee. The trees are trimmed, then brought home for the laborious peeling process. "The whole family jumps in," Goes Ahead said, adding that a group of five can peel about 40 poles in a day.
Red ash and chokecherry wood is cut from the mountain valleys for use as stakes and pins. Canvas is bought from suppliers in Billings or Sheridan, Wyo.
Goes Ahead has helped others set up tepees, but he never gave much thought to doing it as a business. He was attending a sweat ceremony in Pryor about two years ago when the priest at the St. Charles Indian School, the Rev. Randolph Graczyk, mentioned the availability of grants for economic development.
Parishes around the nation collect money the Sunday before Thanksgiving for the CCHD. The group funds local, grassroots projects to promote community organizing and economic development. CCHD has funded projects at Fort Peck and Fort Belknap reservations in northern Montana ? including a successful public radio station ? but never anything on the Crow Reservation, Graczyk said.
"I thought 'Why not?'" he said.
Goes Ahead, and two other Crow, Ben Cloud and Eddie Round Face, suggested a tepee factory. The group applied for a feasibility study grant and greatly impressed the national committee, said Bruce Day, leader of the state CCHD committee and director of the social justice office for the Diocese of Great Falls/Billings.
The group hired Pam Clark, a local planning director, to develop a business plan with funds from the grant. An additional CCHD grant will be applied for pending a favorable study to cover start up costs.
The Pryor Tepee Company hopes to employ up to 20 people within three years to gather the poles in summer and sew the canvas in winter, said Cloud, who also serves in the tribe's newly formed legislature.
Local families will also be approached to help bring back traditional tepee painting techniques. Tepees alone probably won't be enough to keep the business profitable, Clark said. The group also hopes to sell locally made crafts and beadwork.
"The number of artists and craftspeople on the Crow Reservation is just enormous," Clark said. "But there is no where in this area to sell it, zippo."
Some of the crafts are sold in Billings, 40 miles to the north of Pryor. Clark said the mark-up on these products is steep and that Crow artists and craftspeople would find a grateful market with local tourists. Several thousands of visitors each year visit the reservation which encompasses the Little Big Horn National Battlefield.
"It's going to take the entire community to make this work," Clark said. Following CCHD guidelines, the business will be nonprofit and community-based, Clark said.
That was the reason for the kick-off feast in December. Project organizers wanted to explain to their neighbors their vision of sharing the culture to create jobs and preserve ancient traditions. A sweat ceremony was held the afternoon before the feast to pray for its success.
"That's one of the reasons we're getting our elders and clan uncles together, so there will be good words going out into the community," Cloud said. "I really believe it's going to work. It's going to be Crow-made."
"It's going to be authentic."
About 600 people live in the Pryor area, but there are less than 100 jobs, Goes Ahead said. Many
of the residents go without work or must travel to Billings for employment.
"I really hope we can set up some job security for the whole community," he said. "I'm really looking forward to this. My whole family is."
Early indicators show a healthy market for tepees, said Roundface. The market is also strong on the reservation, where most families keep a tepee, especially for the summertime Crow Fair, which is one of the largest powwows in the nation.
"We already have people knocking on our door from as far away as Germany and Sweden," Roundface said. "The market is wide open for us."