Montana kite fliers honor bison, American Indian heritage

By Emily Wolfe Explore Big Sky Managing Editor

BILLINGS – Colorful bison will dance over a number of historic buffalo jumps this summer, as some of the country’s best-known kite-wranglers fly artistic pieces designed to honor the continent’s historic bison herds, and bring attention to American Indian art.

Organized by Sky Wind World, a Billings-based nonprofit, the Flying Buffalo Project goes first to the Madison Buffalo Jump near Three Forks on July 20. For nearly 2,000 years, American Indians used this and other similar cliffs to stampede and kill bison for sustenance.

Terry Lee, 65, who’s organizing the project, has lived in Billings for more than 40 years and has been flying kites since she was a child.

Lee has commissioned artwork from a dozen American Indians – notably Kevin Red Star and DG House. The works have come in on canvas, ripstop nylon, even one on a bed sheet. All the pieces are big, Lee said, with Angela Babby’s measuring 6 feet by 10 feet.

Some of the pieces were part of the 2004-2006 “Visions of Lewis and Clark” exhibition Lee coordinated as the volunteer special events coordinator for the Billings Logan International Airport, and others are new for this project.

Works of art in hand, Lee’s husband Drake Smith, the project’s main kite builder and a retired government engineer, is building the artwork into traditional kite shapes, making them larger with ripstop nylon to create a frame around the art and adding more lightweight surface space so they will fly well.

“Instead of buffalo tumbling off the edge of the jump, this time you’re going to see them rise into the sky,” Lee said.

Lee and Drake have assembled a team of expert kite fliers including master kite-builder John Burkhardt of Potomac, Md., who Lee called “the grandfather of kites in America,” and John Pollock, an artist from Billings, who has won numerous art awards from the American Kitefliers Association.

On July 27, the kites go to the Vore Buffalo Jump, near Devil’s Tower, Wyo., on Aug. 3 to the First Peoples Buffalo Jump near Great Falls, and on Aug. 7 they head to Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, a UNESCO World Heritage Site outside of Calgary, Alberta.

“I equate kites to the human body,” Lee said. “If a person is going to fly well through life, they’ve got to be balanced, like a kite… A kite has a skin – its fabric. The bones in our body equate to the… connection points that connect the spars to the skin, and the bridal is like our mind – it’s [how we direct it]. The wind is similar to our spirit: It connects us to the rest of the world.”

Sky Wind World has worked around the state for 15 years, Lee said, teaching kite building to students at private, public and reservation schools.

“It teaches STEM education – science, tech, engineering and math – along with art, physics, craft science, history, patience and persistence,” Lee said.

“We call kite flying dancing with the wind,” she added. “To see [a kite] up in the sky is rewarding. It takes you out of your body and into a different element… [By putting] a piece of art in the sky, it becomes a focused thing in your sight, in your mind.”

The Madison Buffalo Jump
Fish, Wildlife and Parks

This massive, semi-circular limestone cliff carved by the Madison River was used by several different American Indian nations for 2,000 years, ending as recently as 200 years ago.

Runners – highly skilled young men trained for speed and endurance – wore buffalo, antelope or wolf skins to lure vast herds of bison to the “pishkun” or cliff, stampeding the animals off the 35- to 40-foot drop. They used the bison for food, clothing, shelter and provisions.

“Generally speaking, nomadic hunter gatherers used the jump,” said Anne Ore, a ranger at Madison Buffalo Jump State Park. “Archaeologically, there were some pot shards found that seem to indicate Shoshone use of the jump, but also this place was important to other nations and their ancestors, as well.”

The buffalo jump was often key to native peoples’ existence until the introduction of horses led to its abandonment sometime after 1700. Bison bones still lie buried at the cliff’s base, and archaeologists have located the tipi rings of an extensive village.

Ore explained that collectors took many of the artifacts before the archaeolgists could study them, so “there is still more work to be done at the jump.”