I recently traveled through the beautiful mountains and winding roads outside of Belgrade, MT, on my way to join a group of “young walkers” during their “Dawn Star” graduation ceremony. The young walkers are adolescents who are graduating from Three Rivers Montana, a non-profit Outdoor Behavioral Health Care program that utilizes the Anasazi Way. Because it was cold and rainy that day, the ceremony was held inside the teepee located at the base camp. Before entering and after leaving the teepee, we stayed dry under tarps, warmed by the bow-drill fire that one of the young walkers had “busted.”
Once inside the teepee, we all sat in a circle and Joe Mcleod, the Base Camp Director, started the ceremony. He explained that the metaphor of the “Dawn Star” refers to the last starlight in the night, whose appearance signals a new dawn. Each person was then invited to speak when they were handed the “talking stick.” The parents spoke of being very moved by the changes they had experienced in their sons, and shared how their own personal changes had occurred as a result of participating in this program. Although two of the boys chose not to speak at that point, when I spoke with them later, they seemed cheerful and positive about the insights they had developed. Operations Director/Co-Founder, Mark Partlett, said the bright light of the Dawn Star symbolizes the light of insight within. He encouraged us to keep light of new dawn alive in our hearts and retain the memories of the wilderness within us, regardless of where we are, in the city or in our living room. Marylis Filipovich, MSW, LCSW, Executive Director and Clinical Coordinator, expressed pleasure that she had the opportunity to sit with the parents again, this time watching their sons’ graduation. She had previously worked with these parents during the workshops held shortly after their students’ enrollment.
During the ceremony, the graduates were given a personal talking stick, along with a small hand-made pouch of the ochre that had been used to symbolically decorate their stick. The day before, each graduate had met with their therapist and their family to talk privately. After the ceremony they met together again, this time to say their goodbyes and for each family to place their ochre-hand prints on the teepee, as a way of leaving a part of themselves there in those mountains.
During our journey out to the base camp where the Dawn Star ceremony took place, Marylis, Mark, and Education Director, Holli Richardson, told me more about their program. Similar to the Anasazi program in Arizona, the Three Rivers counselors meet with the parents for a workshop within the first week after enrollment, if possible. The parents have weekly contact with the therapist, and communicate through letters with their son or daughter. The program is a minimum of 42 days with a possibility of an extension for further treatment or to give the child an opportunity for a leadership phase. At the end of the program, parents spend three days with their child at the Base Camp. During this family camp time, the therapist spends several hours with them and the staff helps make sure their child has what he needs to keep them comfortable. Three Rivers counselors are then available to stay in contact with the graduates, once they return home or go to their next placement.