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The idea behind the 18-foot tall painted canvas teepee tells a story; more specifically, a spiritual journey. It all started a few years ago when I was asked by a family in Big Sky, Montana if I would paint on their teepee that was displayed in their yard next to their beautiful log home. At the time they asked, I was pregnant with my first child and was not physically able to do something of this size. I unfortunately turned down the project but in the back of my mind, the idea of it never went away. I thought about it for years and finally the passion inside me for doing this project was still there and maybe greater than ever. Thus began the beginning of my adventure.


I bought the blank canvas teepee from a company in Bozeman that specializes in making teepees and brought it home to my studio in North Dakota to get started. The general look and feel of the teepee came purely from my imagination. I had painted pictures of teepees before and the idea was to try bring that to life. Though I could see the colors of the teepee in my mind’s eye, I still wasn’t sure what symbols to use. As September 2015 approached, we were among the Blood Moon Eclipse, which I watched from start to finish. Not long after the eclipse, I realized through a personal experience how connected humans and their emotional energies are to the phases of the moon, especially women. This rare event was the beginning of a string of impactful events in my life, and I decided to incorporate its symbolism toward the very top of the teepee.


I started doing a lot of research on the ancient art of teepee painting. Reading about traditional ways Native Americans went through this process connected me even more to this project. Through my reading, I discovered that the people painting the teepees would often meditate and if any visions came to them during meditation or through dreams, they would incorporate them as symbols on the teepee. The three main symbols I chose for the body of the teepee took on a life of their own and in retrospect, they actually chose me. 

One morning, I decided to do a sunrise meditation. I woke up just before sunrise and went out to an open field about a mile from my parents’ranch house in western North Dakota. The previous year, my dad had found what looked like an old teepee ring near the edge of this field which I thought would make a perfect spot for my meditation.  Approaching the circle of stones, I intuitively stopped before entering. Something inside me decided I should ask permission to enter first. So, I reached both hands out to the sky, closed my eyes and quietly, to myself, asked the Spirit to allow me to enter this sacred space. In that moment, while my eyes were closed, I heard what sounded like a bison standing right behind me. I heard the deepest inhale and exhale and again inhale and exhale into my right ear. My heart skipped a beat, my mind raced through every possible scenario of what I was about to witness. I braced myself, opened my eyes and was in complete awe to see the same wide-open field on which I had just walked through. There were no animals and no people as far as the eye could see. how could this be?

Later that day I spoke to a very spiritual friend that lives in the area and told her about the event that had happened. Early the very next morning, she told me that a native man came to her in her dream. He presented himself as Iktomi, a name she
had never heard of before. He told her the breaths I experienced was the Spirit cleansing me before entering the sacred space. He also told her it was not a teepee ring I walked into but an ancient medicine wheel dating back thousands of years. He explained to her that the medicine wheel was used for spiritual and healing ceremonies and to teach humanity about the eternal circle of life. He also spoke of how they were typically built high on a bluff, overlooking water and facing the morning sun, which was exactly how this one was positioned. A few days later I awoke early one morning to the thought that may-
be Iktomi had been a real Native American at one time. So, I decided to Google his name to see what I could find. I found out that Iktomi was the name of the Great Spider Spirit in Lakota mythology and is best known for being the legend of the dreamcatcher. My spiritual friend decided to contact a Native American acquaintance living on the Standing Rock Reservation and told him of the events that had taken place. He promptly invited us to his home for a sweat lodge ceremony. He explained, after having such an experience, that a sweat should take place. In the early fall of that year, three of my “sisters” and I headed to the Standing Rock Reservation for our first-ever sweat lodge ceremony. To explain in detail the things that happened that day would be nearly impossible but what I will never forget is the wisdom that was shared with me that day. I had inquired why
this experience in the medicine wheel had happened to me, a non-Native American, white girl, from North Dakota. I was told that the Spirit does not see the color of our skin but can only see the color of our soul. It moved me to tears and, in that moment, it seemed so obvious to me that it was always humans who created these borders around ourselves. I had wrongly
assumed the Spirit also saw these same borders. Spirit taught me an important lesson that morning in the medicine wheel and it all came from a few breaths. Its symbol is placed just to the right of the teepee door.

The last of the three main symbols is the bison skull shield. I fully realized the connection Native Americans have to the bison after listening to the elder men at the sweat lodge speak. The bison was their source of life, almost an extension of who they were, and are. The bison provided food, medicine, shelter, tools and much more, which created a connection so close to the Native Americans that they thought of them as ancestors that were here to teach them and provide for them.


July 26th, 2016 will mark the culmination of more than a year-long project in the making; a project that seems to have chosen me and taken me on a journey I would have never expected and will never forget. On this day, the teepee will rise in its final place in the heart of Big Sky, MT and a spiritual ceremony will be conducted by a local shaman. It will be very exciting to see this project come full circle. Although it seems to be nearing the end, there is also a big part of me that feels this is just the beginning of something even greater, of which I have yet to be aware. ~ Katie Lee

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