When most of us want to remember to do something, we put a Post-it note on our computer or refrigerator. Tom Rodgers’s Post-it is a 25-foot-high tipi with pine lodge poles he planned to erect in his backyard near Washington, D.C.’s Capitol Building in mid-August.
Rodgers believes there will be an invisible conduit of energy and power between his hand-painted canvas tipi and the massive cast-iron Capital Dome, which he sees as the white male–dominated power center of the world. He plans on tapping into the symbolic energy of his tipi to empower Indigenous Peoples in this year’s elections. “I live in Alexandria, Virginia, about five minutes by car from Capitol Hill,” says Rodgers, a citizen of the Blackfeet Nation and lawyer-lobbyist-owner of Carlyle Consulting. “Every day, when I get up I’ll stand on the deck off my kitchen, see the tipi and ask myself, ‘What do I have to do today?’?”
His answer will focus on the tasks he has to complete between now and the November elections and how those elections will determine who will be in that Capitol Building. The people elected this November, he says, will be making the laws and policies that will affect the lives of everyone on Earth, but, most important to Rodgers, the lives of people in Indian country. “By building that tipi I’ve reminded myself of what is important in the upcoming elections,” he explains—directing all his energy toward raising the money needed to organize and educate Native people about the importance of voting and then motivating them vote.
It all comes back to building community, Rodgers says, and that’s what drove him back home—to the Blackfeet Nation reservation—in Montana in early July, where he spent a weekend with family and friends designing and painting the tipi. Rodgers, who just turned 52, says he has always believed he’ll live to be 100 years old. He says the first 50 years were spent learning about what to value and he hopes to spend the next 50 applying that wisdom to building community across Indian country.
The connection is clear, he insists: You need to build community to impact politics, and once you impact politics you can impact policy. And you need to impact policy to build a more ethical society, he says. To Rodgers, the man who blew the whistle on former Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, ethics and education go hand in hand. Earlier this year, he created a full-ride law school scholarship for American Indian students and called it the Tom C. Rodgers O-tee-paym-soo-wuk Ethics in Government scholarship.
With the election season approaching, Rodgers decided it would be “a wonderful metaphor to go back to my people and build something that would symbolize what this election is about for me—getting out and empowering our people. So that tipi is a metaphor for both the 48 years ahead of me and for how important this election is to our people. It’s all about building.”
Rodgers contacted his cousin Darrell Norman for help. Norman is a Blackfeet artist who works with both traditional and nontraditional materials. Among Norman’s many productions are the canvas tipis at his Blackfeet tipi camp, near Browning, Montana, on the Blackfeet Reservation. “Darrell runs the only tipi bed-and-breakfast that I know about,” said Rodgers, who wanted a symbolic tipi that told a story, not one made of unadorned canvas, and knew the vision for the tipi had to come from him. So he thought about it, and his meditations took him back to his childhood and time spent with his grandfather on a ranch near Babb, Montana, a small town on the Blackfeet Reservation. “Babb used to have a bar with a sign that said, no whites allowed!?” Rodgers laughs. “It was so dark there—the kind of place you drive for 10 miles and don’t see a light. It’s within a mile of Glacier [National] Park, and we had the incredible backdrop of Glacier Park mountains out the back window. I’d go out to the corral—my grandfather was a wonderful horseman—and I’d look at the stars. It was like looking at black velvet with diamonds shot on it. That was the visual I started with.”
The top of the tipi around the lodge poles is painted with the Big Dipper and Little Dipper in the Milky Way against a black sky. A third of the way down, Rodgers, Norman and their pals Elton Gardipee, Blackfeet, and Wally Selam, Yakima Nation, painted a ring of the morning sun and crescent moon against a background of blue that is the color of the Blackfeet Nation flag and the Montana sky. Around the base of the tipi is a ring of black with yellow circles that represent falling stars. The men spent an entire day painting the tipi and erected it that night, spiking it down with birch wood spikes, sealing the flap, which opens toward the east and the morning sun, and buttoning the flap closed with birch wood stakes. “And then I slept in it for the night because that’s what you’re supposed to do in the way of a blessing,” Rodgers says.
The tipi was trucked to Rodgers’s home and he has purchased plane tickets for his pals to fly out and help him erect it in his backyard. “My Post-it note is going to be 18 feet wide and 25 feet high in Alexandria, Virginia, which is about as Colonial traditionalist in architecture as you can possibly get,” he says. He plans to notify his neighbors and the local historical architecture commission, but still he expects there might be some protest. “But if they want to make the assertion that this beautiful piece of religious sculpture as a symbol for building community and political empowerment for Native Americans—the poorest of the poor—is inappropriate, let them,” he says.
Rodgers insists he doesn’t want to tell Natives whom to vote for. He just wants them to vote. “Only then can we address the pathologies that we, unfortunately, suffer from—the poverty and lack of health, and the lack of suicide-prevention money and the lack of skills we need to break from the violence against our own women, and the teenage pregnancy—and then take on building our financial literacy and our language programs,” he says. “That’s cool—and that’s what this is about.”