The Billings Outpost

To make better world, just try flying a kite

By JANE WHITE - The Billings Outpost

Kites in the Flying Buffalo Project can be seen Friday at the Audubon Conservation Education Center.Drake Smith and Terry Zee Lee, a local husband and wife kite-educating team, run a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization called Sky Wind World that invites all Montana Native American children to learn both academic and social skills in kite-flying workshops and competitions called kite battles.

Such kite-centered events are scheduled at various buffalo jump locations for years to come, as well as educational events in schools on Montana reservations. About a dozen Native American artists, including D.G. House and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, have contributed their paintings, which Mr. Smith attaches to the many kinds of kites he helps others to make. The artists received an honorarium for their work and retained ownership of their images.

Both Smith and Lee’s kites represented their handiwork at the 2004 Visions of Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Kite Exhibition in Great Falls. His kite, “Nine Cell Visions,” and hers, “Spirit of the Horses,” manifested the ways in which the Native Americans’ contributions to the Corps of Discovery made the journey a successful one for the explorers.

For example, “Nine Cell Visions” honors all the tribes that Lewis and Clark contacted, while “Spirit of the Horses” reveals that Capt. Meriwether Lewis appreciated the Snake Indians’ horses that hauled his Corps’ cargo on the treacherous land and river journey.

Ms. Lee said her dream for her specific project, The Flying Buffalo Project, is for all Native American kids to learn science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) via kite making and friendly rivalry in subsequent kite-battle competitions, after which the rivals enjoy a great feast together.

Her secret goal, she said, is to have the 2,000-year old history of community get-togethers rejuvenate itself through kite battles on Montana’s reservations.

“Native tribes do not get along very well,” she said, adding, “If we started ‘kite-battle’ between tribes … [they could] host ‘kite-battle days’ and feast together afterward … .”

She said she organized the nonprofit ( in 1999 and has been “thrilled with how this has been resonating with everyone … . We are raising generations of kite fliers by going on the reservations and getting them excited over kite flying … . There are small kites who destroy other kites by cutting each other’s lines … there are six-sided ‘Rokkaku’ Japanese kites that require four people to handle each kite.”

She said kite making and kite flying promote teamwork, persistence and patience in the kite handlers. 

The preservation of the buffalo on the prairie is another of Ms. Lee’s goals. She said, “I want some funds from Ted Turner … . His work in buffalo ranching, restoration of the buffalo to the plains and his overall efforts to preserve the buffalo in our culture is very important.”

Her posture and tone changed markedly when she began to recount some of the U.S. actions taken against Indians during the country’s tumultuous history. 

“Our country tried to eliminate the Indians by eliminating the buffalo. We think it’s very important for our nation to do all they can to assist native nations - it’s in our nation’s best interest to have all of its citizens thrive. As our first citizens, Native Americans are very important.”

She added, “Everybody should know the importance of the buffalo to the native nations.” Finally, she said proudly, “All Montana tribes will be asked to represent their cultures at the Flying Buffalo Project events.” 

Kite making and flying workshops are scheduled for July 20 at The Madison Buffalo Jump, near Three Forks, on July 25 at Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, on July 27 at Vore Buffalo Jump near Devil’s Tower, Wyo., on Aug. 3 at First People’s Buffalo Jump west of Great Falls, on Aug. 7 at Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump near Fort Macleod, Alberta, Canada, on Sept. 1 at Chief Plenty Coups Museum near Pryor, on Sep. 13 at Santa Ynez Band of Chumash near Santa Barbara, Calif., and on Sept. 23-24 at St. Labre Indian School in Ashland.

From noon to 5 p.m. on Oct. 6, the Yellowstone River Parks Association will host five specialty kite demonstrations at Amend Park, including kids’ kite building and kite free-flying. Call Ron Smith at 860-1873 for more information.

Ms. Lee said her mother, Ozeta Burns-Denton, schooled her and her four other siblings - sons and daughters of an Air Force officer who moved constantly - in the paradigmatic nature of Native Americans as America’s first citizens. Ms. Lee said she had lived in eight states by age 16, thanks to her father’s career, but now calls Billings her permanent home. Ms. Burns-Denton, according to Lee, volunteered at the Denver History Museum for many years and emphasized the seminal nature of the Native Americans who lived on the continental U.S. before anyone else did. 

Why does Terry Zee Lee want to focus her efforts on Montana reservations? “The suicide, dropout, teen pregnancy, methamphetamine use and neediness rates are sky-high,” she said. “We stole land from the Indians, forced them onto reservations, took their wealth again [when natural resources were discovered] and again and [sentenced] them to life in a subsistence economy,” she said.

Ms. Lee said Montana reservation schools are a secondary recipient of Sky Wind World funds (if it ever turns a profit) while the Yellowstone Art Museum Education Department is the primary recipient (again, only if the 501(c)(3) ever makes more money than it spends.)   

Many kites are currently on exhibit at Billings Logan International Airport through March 2014, as part of “Visions of Lewis and Clark,” specifically titled “A Flying Tribute to the Tribes.” The exhibit will travel to Nebraska in May 2014 and is destined to educate people about kites for as long as various airports would like to display them. Mr. Smith talks more about humor and physics when he talks about his love for all things kite.

“TLAR,” he said, translating the acronym to “That Looks About Right.” 

Listening to mesmerizing 1970s music by the Allman Brothers, Smith makes kites in the basement of his home. Hundreds of kites tied in their own bags occupy a cavernous storage room in the basement.

Opposite the storage room in the studio, sewing machines, drafting tables, rulers, tubes for kite structures, rip stop materials and vividly colored kites dominate the kite-themed home. Dressed in beige Bermuda shorts, a canary T-shirt and bare feet, Smith shared his library of kite books, the most prominent of which is “Kites: An Historical Survey,” by Clive Hart. 

“If you run with your kite, you will spill your beer,” said Mr. Smith. He said he likes the whimsical spirit of kites and their makers. Age 66, Mr. Smith’s gray hair was swept back, complemented by gray beard and mustache and round glasses. Tall and lanky, he said the sport of kite flying will keep a person fit.

Kite flying requires a person to run for several hours across sometimes sandy ground or fields to keep the kite aloft. He said he has done this in Amend Park in Billings and in other locations.

Originally from Maryland, Mr. Smith is now retired in Billings, participating as a board member in Sky Wind World kite activities. A 25-year member of the Maryland Kite Society, Smith likes to share knowledge about the fascinating history of kites.

Kites were used in military signaling to convey information about troop movements and to observe behind enemy lines. For weather reports, kites were flown high into the atmosphere before weather satellites and airplanes.

Kites were precursors to space capsules, he said. “Observers were hauled up in kites and about six people per year in India were killed. Kites also towed rafts, a very dangerous job because the metal frame [of the kite] could be picked up by radar,” he said.

“To [make] a kite, you must have scaling, structure and sculpture,” said Mr. Smith. “Kite making is scientific but it is not completed science. There are no formulas, only guidelines and rules of thumb. They bend, flutter and get deformed and beaten up by the wind.”

His wife agreed. “There are always errant winds, down drafts and gusts that you cannot expect,” she said. They both said that aspects of kite making and flying teach patience and persistence.


Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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