This past Fourth of July marked our country’s 228th birthday, and the 106th year of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ Annual Arlee Fourth of July Celebration—but the Flathead Nation’s roots far outdate America’s independence. Some archaeological findings suggest Native Americans inhabited Montana over 14,000 years ago. The Salish and Pend d’Oreilles tribes shared hunting grounds as far east as the Bighorn Mountains in the 1700s, and the Hellgate Treaty established their land—1.3 million acres—as the Flathead Reservation in 1855. But in 1908, Congress’ Allotment Act parceled just 771,900 of those acres to Indian families; the 1910 Homesteaders Act opened the remaining land to non-Indian settlers. Only in recent years has about 60 percent of Flathead Reservation land been brought back under tribal ownership.
Still, the Salish and Kootenai tribes choose America’s independence day to celebrate their heritage—in part, because it’s the time of year when warriors were historically sent out to battle for hunting grounds; and in part because it’s a good holiday weekend to draw crowds.
Today the Arlee powwow is a crossroads of tribes and tourists, teens and elders, tradition and change. But at 8:00 on Saturday night, powwow attendees share the singular goal of having a good time. A dust cloud hovers above the dancers in the main arena. Four hundred and seven dancers representing Northwest tribes from Washington to Canada have been competing in 25 different dance categories (fancy dance, traditional, jingle, grass, prairie chicken) since 1:00 p.m., and the earthy dance floor won’t clear until after midnight. Drummers haven’t quit since the first Grand Entry dance—and maybe it’s just the intensity with which the sun is catching the clouds above the fairgrounds, but the beat seems to get louder with time. The singing, too. Above the buckskin outfits, eagle-feathered headpieces, beaded tiaras, jingle dresses, multi-colored bustles and bell-adorned moccasins, the powwow singers’ voices rise in a rhythmic chant that’s not losing steam any time soon.
There’s energy everywhere at the Arlee powwow—in the dancing arena, in the stick game tent, on the lawn where young boys in brightly colored regalia throw plastic swords, in the maze of teepees and RVs where teenagers flirt, in the information headquarters where the Paul family keeps the weekend’s events running smoothly.
For the past 10 months, Committee Chairman Philip Paul, his wife Debbie Paul, their sons Simon and Louie and 10 other committee volunteers have been preparing for this five-day celebration. Through donations and fundraisers, they have raised $120,000 to help cover the powwow’s costs (the tribal government also assists in funding). They’ve booked vendors whose wares range from $3 rabbit pouches to $90 buffalo skulls. They’ve arranged for police security and curfews to keep alcohol and drugs off the grounds. They’ve got a first-aid station that’s giving out free condoms. They’ve enlisted emcees to announce the dance and drum contests, where prize money ranges from $100 to $5,000.
In short, they’ve addressed all the modern-day concerns necessary to keep their century-plus tradition going strong.
And the Arlee powwow is going strong. Ask an elder dancer adjusting his bustle; ask 12-year-old Northern Cheyenne Tasia Scalpeane, about to enter her first Junior Girls Fancy Dance competition: The Arlee Celebration has gotten bigger over the years. More modern, say some. Less traditional, say others. But under the arena’s roof, opinions are trumped by fellowship.
It’s out by the tents, away from the unified chant and the drumbeat’s grip, that participants find their own words to describe the changes and the staying power of this time-honored event.
Philip Paul, celebration committee chairman and son of late Wardance Chief John Peter Paul:
“Over a hundred years ago, when the white man came, the [Arlee] powwow was formed because the Flathead and the Upper and Lower Pend d’Oreille would send out their young men to come of age at 13 to 14 years old. In May, they would send their men out in all directions…to kill [other tribes’ warriors] so they could have a clear hunting ground for the rest of the tribe. And on the last moon of June, they would come back and gather along the Flathead, in the Arlee area, and go in the river bottom and make their chants. And on that moon, when the solstice is changing, people gather, and that’s how [the powwow] started. They started with a victory dance for four days and four nights, and then the scouts would announce who [had been killed] and who [hadn’t], and they’d gather all the people to a memorial.” At today’s Arlee Celebration, “the first night is Campers Day, and we have an open memorial ceremony, where we announce the names of all the tribal members who have passed away, and say a prayer, and then we open the celebration to everybody. We hoot and holler and just say let’s have a good time from now until we get done.”
Pearl Whitford, Chippewa-Cree,
from Rocky Boy, watching a stick game:
“I’ve been going to powwows ever since I was a little girl. I go to about eight a year.” In the stick game there are two teams seated (well over 30 people in one game on Saturday, including drummers) and “one side has sticks and the other side has bones. People are hiding the bones [in their hands]. There are two plain bones, and the others are striped. You try to guess who has the plain bones, and if you guess wrong, you give up a stick. You have to use your mind to guess where you think the plain bones are. It ends when you’re out of sticks. A $900 game was just played. Sometimes it goes to $1,200.”
James Nomee, fancy dancer, Spokane tribe:
“I powwow quite a bit. I’m on the circuit all year round and go to 60 to 100 powwows a year. I travel with family, with my mom, dad and cousin today, but it’s just me that dances. This is a good [powwow]. It feels good out there. You’re just dancing, out there in your own little world. You free your mind. I just learned since I was a little kid. Since I could walk.”
Russell Standing Rock, Chippewa-Cree from Rocky Boy:
“I’m in an internationally known singing group. We sing for the dancers. Powwow songs tend to be more just a sound of the throat, but today everything is turning into contemporary. Contemporary means a lot of these groups sing and put words in these songs in their language, and then some of these songs even have English words in them; that’s what’s going on with our younger generation. I don’t like it because it’s not traditional, and it’s not our way when I was growing up in years before, when war songs were religious, traditional songs that honored warriors, that honored members of a tribe, that honored the universe. But today, generally, the majority of these contemporary songs, what they’re saying is, ‘everybody dance,’ and there’s no words that are meaningful like it was 10 to 15 years ago, where, like I said, the only time we got to sing them was to honor somebody.
“Today I’ve heard some Navajo people use my language in their song because they copied some of our voice. And the dislike I have in those [songs] is even if they’re just simple words, ‘get up and dance,’ do they understand the words? I’ve come across where a lot of these groups are not saying the words right, so that’s a problem, and some of those words that they translate often resulted in swearing-type of words, and I have no respect [for that]. I like the old style which we sing.
“I think what’s attracted the most people here is, to me, the atmosphere. You know, I was fed twice today. Some people invited me who knew me, and some relatives invited me. I like the sense of being one, so to speak. And secondly what I think attracts the people is the money. Last year we took second here in a singing contest [$3,000–4,000], and we were thinking about coming here and doing one step better.
“We need diversity. That’s what needs to be done. The more people the better, even if we are sacrificing tradition, because I think we have more of an understanding, you know. Because you don’t know me, but for you to show me enough that you respect what I do and support what I do, I think the communities are going to understand better and respect better. Awareness is very important, because how many people in Missoula know a powwow exists in Arlee?
“There’s more youth today then there was five years ago. I was telling my nephews, when I was growing up there was old people singing, and old people dancing, and young people watching. Today it is just a complete turn where 99 percent are youth singing and dancing, and the older people are sitting and watching.
“The money brings the younger people, and I think it’s good, but it’s also a little bit wrong.”
Floyd Rider, Sr., Blackfeet elder:
“We come from Browning, from east of the mountains. I’m going to do the Grand Entry. I’ve been dancing all my life. I’m 72 now. I started out as a grass dancer, then a traditional bustle dancer. This is a traditional warbonnet buckskin, made out of porcupine and with eagle feathers. And all the beadwork has got to be matching.”
Debbie Paul, Arlee Celebration committee member, holding 7-week-old granddaughters Danica and Vivica Paul:
“My husband [Philip] is the chairman, so as his wife, and his children, we all stepped forward to help him out. I’m the one that sets up the concessionaires when they come in. I’ve been married to Philip for 28 years, and I’ve seen this powwow grow. Back in the earlier days you could tell what tribe was what, and nowadays you can’t really tell because they’re all dressing the same.
“I feel the powwow is special to me because my in-laws met here, and they were one of the longest-married couples I know. They were married for 73 years when my father-in-law died. And here at this powwow I met Philip. There are five or six generations here.
“My mother-in-law said that the reason that you wrap a baby tight is so that their spirit doesn’t get broken. If a loud door slams, or with the music here, and the loud noises, this papoose bag is almost like the cradle boards they used to have. When I put them in here, they go out.”
Milyn Lazy Boy, 13; Cherelle Walking Child, 12; Lenadra Walking Child, 15:
Three teenagers from Browning and Great Falls come to the Arlee powwow to sing and dance—and “snag,” or “teepee creep,” they say. “We come for everything—and to hook up with someone for the whole powwow.”
Miss Salish Pend d’Oreille Junior Princess Shanelle Parker, age 11:
“The powwow is fun, and it keeps tradition alive.” To compete to be Princess, “you have to make up a 500-word essay, and you have to welcome everyone [to the celebration], and you have to dance. The essay is about your family, and why you would be a good representative of our celebration. I’m a good representative because I’m drug-free, I go to a lot of powwows, and I enjoy powwows, and I dance a lot. I dance fancy. I’m in a contest. I keep the sash on except for during the contest, because of favoritism.”
Pat Pierre, traditional dancer and Pend d’Oreille elder:
“I do traditional dance. I’ve been doing it since I was 5 years old. I’m 75. I don’t have a doctor; I’ve never been in the hospital in my life, simply because I still believe in medicinal plants, and the sweat lodge. There are no sweats at the powwow; sweats are pretty sacred, and there’s nothing really sacred here right now.
“I look out there and I see all that [litter] on the ground, that’s on Mother Earth’s face. And that’s not something that we do. These people are a little careless.
“It’s all a contest [now]. Whoever’s the best dancer wins money. There never used to be any money at all. We’d have our dancers and their pay was maybe a bottle of pop. Then about 1948, ’49, they started to pay dancers, $2, $3. But then after a while some places along the line started the contest…It brings a lot of people, simply because they want to make some money. It’s kind of sad, you know.
“But I can pray for people out there. If I see someone in a wheelchair out there while I’m dancing, I can tell that person, ‘I come and dance for you.’ That’s the purpose of my coming here. Not so much for money or competition. I come here for healing, you know, for my people.”