"Scratchy-ass berries" is what my Grandma Katie called rosehips, the fruit of various species of the rose family, Rosaceae. Grandma Katie was my mom’s mother, born in 1898 on the windswept prairie of north central Montana. Her birth came ten years after the A’ainin (Gros Ventre) Reservation at Fort Belknap was established. Grandma spent all her life on the Great Plains, growing up in the small community of Hays on the reservation, attending only a couple years of boarding school in Oregon during her late teens. She married one of the nitsi ta piksi (Real People), raising her family in the looming shadow of the Rockies just east of the Great Divide. She had already been blessed with twenty grandchildren by the time I was born, but I was the one who would be favored with her name nearly fifty years later.
I grew up in Browning, the heart of Montana’s sprawling, one-and-a-half-million acre Blackfeet Indian Reservation. The rolling foothills and rugged backdrop of Glacier National Park’s adjacent peaks invigorated the soul. Summit, Little Dog, and Calf Robe ascended above Marias Pass, their backsides wrapped in blankets of snow for most of the year. Rising Wolf prominently emerged from the floor of Two Medicine valley, sitting stoic beside his wife Sinopáhki (Kit Fox Woman), and her father Lone Walker. They stood in stark contrast to the trash-strewn, gravel streets of Moccasin Flats where Grandma Katie’s modest shack sat on a small mound behind the school. I’d spend every day after school at her house, watching her bead for long hours into the evening. On weekends, Grandma never missed an occasion to travel with my family. She lived with us during the summer at the ranch and was there when we camped in the park, slept on the shore of St. Mary Lake, or drove for miles in search of berries.
She’d tell us not to swallow the tiny rosehip seeds whenever we happened upon the red globes of the prickly rose. Wild rose bushes grew everywhere we hiked and hunted, clumped densely together with spindly stalks and sharp, protective thorns. We’d carefully select the brightest pods, plump with ripeness. The bigger the fruit, the thicker it seemed the sweet peel was, making it easier to scrape the outside layer with our teeth and discard the tightly bunched seeds in the middle. Grandma would warn us not to eat the silvery-white hairs attached to the seeds. She told us the Blackfeet called rosehips kinii, akin to tomato, but Grandma knew more than the name implied and my ears perked up when she reticently whispered, “their real name is scratchy-ass berries.”
I was almost fifty years old when Grandma Katie’s name became mine, sitting in front of a small fire beside a quiet stream. Antelope Creek descended invisibly at first, from long-shaded snow banks, emerging from the steep north side of Avalanche Divide, where harsh white cliffs made it impossible to distinguish between snow and stone. The creek suddenly sprang forth below dense stands of black timber, flowing down through stunted aspen, obscured amid thick grass and pungent peppermint. It slowly meandered toward Buffalo Canyon, where red canyon walls merged with earth and clay into hard ground beneath me. When I was much younger, we lived for a few months on a ranch alongside this creek, escaping the scorching days of summer by cooling off in the canyon’s shallow pools. Leeches, small and murky brown like the remnant water, would slide off our wet skin with a quick brush of the palm.
Further up the creek, where the corral and open barn sat mostly empty, Mom had grown radishes and an occasional green onion. Wild onions, chives and iris would appear in the spring around the outside of her little garden plot. Better than these though, were the Indian carrots Grandma Katie always pointed out, scattered sparsely in damp bogs next to the creek. Niistsikápa (double root) were easy to spot with their tall, slender stalks and white lacy tops, flat clusters dancing delicately amid acres and acres of deep prairie grass. The “wild caraway” would yield in the springtime to our nimble hands or occasional sticks we’d use to loosen the soil around the stems. The moist ground would easily give way, gradually revealing two pale, finger-sized roots. A quick rinse in the creek was all the sweet, nutty-tasting tubers needed, and the horses liked them just as much as us kids did.
Grandma Katie had preferred to sleep outside in the low, canvas wall tent whenever we stayed at the ranch. It had been set up for my brothers and used to sit just a stone’s throw away from the creek where I now sat. A west wind whirled around the fire, and I squinted my eyes to keep out the smoke. A small circle of relatives sat on the blanket around me, as an elder man spoke a monotone string of Blackfeet prayers I barely recognized. Faint whiffs of “quick smell” made me salivate for the warm, wild mint tea Grandma often made from one of the many bunches she’d hang in the tent, lovingly picked and dried, tied with string and sometimes intertwined with a few flowers or wild licorice. It complimented Miinii yoo kaakin, dried meat with butter and a little salt, a satisfying afternoon snack. Grandma used a couple of long, slender teepee poles at her house hanging just below the ceiling to spread out thinly sliced meat above her black woodstove, tending the fire around the clock and coaxing the slow burning cottonwood to subtly flavor the deer my dad brought her. It usually hung there for days at a time like uniform laundry, gradually withering in the heat.
Nearly inaudible words blended with a hand drum. It echoed in my chest, beating slower now and sounding farther away. I recalled bouncing over ruts and rocks in the back of a one-ton with a great bucket of splashing sapootsis (stuffed intestines). We had just butchered a cow in the corral at Antelope Creek. Grandma Katie, Aunt Rosie, and Uncle Frank rode in the back with us kids, the truck sides barely held together with rotten, slivery sideboards. The crisp mountain air felt clean in my nose, and I tried my best to avoid each bloody splash coming from the tub.
We were inching our way up the steep dirt road to the cabin in Snedaker Basin, where they were going to make sapootsis for dinner. “Crow guts” were more than just a special indulgence for my gray-haired, White Clay relatives. Sapootsis was a link to the almost retrievable past, days when their ancestors hunted buffalo. They cleaned and soaked the entrails, turned them inside-out so that the exterior streaks of white fat would flavor the bite-size chunks of freshly-cut meat tucked tightly inside the long, bluish tubes. With pieces of sinew-now-string they would tie them into sections and cook them together for hours in a big pot with rubbery, white otsittsskis (tripe), until all was tender and juicy. Grandma said her people referred to otsittsskis as the “Bible,” because of its many, thick layered pages. A veritable feast awaited us. I wondered if Grandma’s old, weathered hands felt the icy spring water’s bite as she repeatedly rinsed the guts, remembering a generations-old delicacy and celebrating sustenance.
Someone took hold of my arms and my senses briefly returned. The fire still burned. Thick, red ocher was being rubbed around my wrists and over my face, its shade reminiscent of Buffalo Canyon’s steep walls. Scented sweetgrass permeated my nostrils. The sacred smudge mingled with smoldering cottonwood. Moist paint was methodically spread across my cheekbones, up my forehead to my hairline. Smoke momentarily clouded my vision. The wet, dark earth felt cool on my warm skin.
The drum was silent now, but my heart was keeping its rhythm, beating like the steady pace of a galloping horse, the horse my sister and I had ridden as girls. We were riding from the gate just off the county road, when a truck rapidly approached our turn-off. Loose gravel flew out from the tires, instantly engulfed by billows of thick dust, blowing by as the pickup turned towards us. Riding double, we decided to race the vehicle to the barn. We hadn’t realized that in our haste to leave on our daily ride, we hadn’t tightened the cinch enough. We’d tried, but every time we’d give it a hearty pull, the horse would take a deep breath and hold it, as if saying, “It’s tight enough already!” We were now racing over wild prairie at full speed, and with every kick and “giddy-yup!” the saddle got looser. Sarge, a burly ranch hand my dad had hired that summer, was gaining on us, and as we crested a slight hill, the saddle slid. Head over heels and hooves in between, we couldn’t hold on any longer. Grabbing for air, we hit the ground hard, rolling over rocks and tumbling out of control at the same time as both horse and truck skidded to an abrupt stop.
I could almost taste the dirt. It was mixed in with sipátsimo, “fragrant smell.” The slow-burning sweetgrass sat in a shell beside me, after it had been passed around the circle. Hot coals were picked out of the fire and transported with a forked chokecherry-wood stick. As the essential incense glowed, it cleansed the air, washing me in a sweet aroma. I was being reclaimed. I was being given a gift. Not an ordinary gift, an exceptional, distinctive gift. I was receiving my Grandma Katie’s name. The age-old ceremony signified a transformation. Transformation indicates newfound knowledge. I had learned how we grow into ourselves with our ancestors and those closest to us. Shaped by our experiences and influenced by the originality of our relatives, the human family is endowed with unique strengths and inimitable identity. Life is cyclical. Having waited for this moment for nearly fifty years, I felt it must have been happening at its appropriate time, wondering also why it had taken so long.
Grass waved, dry cottonwood leaves rustled, and pine trees whispered from the hill across the rutted dirt road. Like my Great Grandfather’s sheep that once roamed this landscape, the barn and the corral were long gone now, but the pole patch that built them remained, thick and dark. Flat, lichen speckled rocks formed a thin layer of cliffs above the coulee, hanging like narrow, open drawers. My sister had planned this event, inviting Blackfeet elders who would perform the ceremony. Other family members were there to join in remembrance. My mother had agreed to it. Grandma Katie was the only grandmother I’d known. She’d died in 1986 when I was 25. There was no one left to tell me the whole story behind her name, but I had chosen it anyway. She’d shown me how to cut tanned hide from a fat November elk to make moccasins and how to patiently scour the ground for artifacts. She’d taught me to see.
Her name was said aloud, otah kui áa ki in Grandpa Ed’s Amskapi Pikuni language, nee hoo yah ith thay in Atsina.
“Yellow Woman then, is the name you are honored with,” said a brother’s voice, rising as if asking a question.
“Yes,” came the answer from my mom, sitting on a blanket across from me.
Yellow Woman. A silent pipe was passed around the circle. Yellow Woman. My Blackfeet relatives called upon the elements of the universe to bless me. Their prayers ascended with the smoke. The elder’s song of tribute climbed in pitch. I was summoned to rise and slowly face each one of the four directions. Apatohsi, pinááp, amiskapohsi, amitohsi (north, east, south, west) and stuimi, moto, nipo, moko (winter, spring, summer, fall) received my gratitude.
When the rite was finished, my elders gently pushed me forward. I stepped into the world again: protected, stronger, wiser. My spirit was renewed. I felt my grandmother, an unseen energy invigorating like the bright goldfinch, encouraging like the subtler chickadee. The damp earth on my face dried to a deep reddish-brown. Flames succumbed to embers. Northern lights were a swaying, silent breath on the horizon. I couldn’t sleep, only dream of a far-away place, a long-ago time when I heard my Grandma’s voice and felt sacred pigment on my skin, consecrated color. Naming makes manifest.
I am now a grandmother. Irene is my granddaughter’s given name. Today, she could be called “Squirmy Girl” or “Babbles a lot.” I think I’ll wait to tell her about sapootsis and otsittsskis. I will start first with the colors of the rainbow, telling her of yellow’s energy, pointing out the bright, warm sunlight. I will describe how the sun gifts beautiful life to everything in the world and how we depend on its infinite power. I’ll show Irene how cerulean blue sky compliments vibrant orange clouds at dawn and dusk like iridescent goldfish and sweet tangerines, and how the dazzling Wolf’s Trail awakens the black night. We’ll hike to icy turquoise lakes that hold slippery silver fish, and compare the greens of grass and leaves and my potted Aloe Vera plant by the window. I’ll burn my braid of sipátsimo when she’s a little older and it doesn’t make her sneeze.
Sooner or later, she will hear about my sister-in-law Irene, who we lost to cancer last year, and I’ll show her pictures of Morning Eagle and Yellow Bird Woman. Darrell revived the Blackfeet language, and Elouise sued the government and won. People and places and words will paint her life like Grandma Katie’s countless combinations of intricate beadwork. Yellow Woman is her grandmother, and soon the granddaughter will distinguish a plump, red rosehip from a juicy, purple huckleberry. She’ll hike along Antelope Creek or over Dawson-Pitamahkin Pass as if she’s Running Eagle herself, grabbing sweet sustenance along the rocky trail. She will know to pound chokecherry pits and rosehip seeds to make them safe for eating, and she will understand when I whisper in her ear, “their real name is scratchy-ass berries.” •
BEN ADKISON is a professional mountain guide and photographer. When not climbing mountains and taking photos around the world, he's based in Missoula, Montana.
ARMANDO CRESPO was born and raised in a seashell on Miami Beach. He currently lives on a lake bottom in Montana with his lovely girlfriend and their toy poodle.
ANNE DES ROSIER GRANT has Irish, French, Scottish, Gros Ventre, Blackfeet, and Spanish ancestors. As her surname implies, she is "of the roses" and grew up in Montana in places where wild roses grow. Antelope Creek, Buffalo Canyon, Snedaker Basin, and Avalanche Divide are landscapes she is related to, locations consigned to memory, where experiences rooted her to the earth and embedded themselves, vast, rugged, and beautiful.