The sound of drumming and singing wafted through the air from the Arlee Powwow grounds.
Participants dressed in full regalia congregated both inside and outside the covered dancing area. The 121st Arlee Powwow Celebration was underway.
Begun in 1888, the annual Arlee Powwow Celebration continues to be a highlight of the year for the Arlee community. The small town at the southern part of Lake County and the Flathead Reservation hosts Native Americans from numerous tribes from throughout Montana and the western states — some traveling several hundred miles to take part in the celebration.
According to Allen Pierre from Arlee who served as the 2019 head man dancer, the timing of the celebration only coincidentally occurs during America’s celebration of Independence Day on July 4.
Natives celebrate at mid-season and thus the early July celebration is the summer celebration. Nevertheless, many of those who came for the spiritual and community aspects of the powwow celebration also took part in the Fourth of July rodeo and parade.
One such individual, Sooney Little Plume from Browning participated in the team roping event on Thursday and then was dressed in regalia and dancing in the 1st Grand Entry on Friday.
Although some of those who came to the powwow celebration competed in various events, most came simply for the connections — family connections, tribal connections, community connections and especially the spiritual connections to Mother Earth.
The Adams sisters — Nadia, Halle, and Lily, from Arlee who have never missed an Arlee powwow celebration since birth, highlighted the feeling of spirituality they feel while dancing to the drumming and singing.
The sense of family can be seen and felt in every aspect of the powwow celebration. Whether dressed in regalia or not, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, and grandparents carry infants and toddlers in the dances and patiently teach the youngsters the dances as they circle the dancing area.
Grandmas and aunties are especially important as many hand make and hand bead dresses, moccasins, hair pieces and other parts of the regalia.
Pierre created many of the war bonnets, feather caps, fans, bustles and other pieces carried and worn by fellow Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d’Oreille tribal members who were dancing in this year’s celebration. He commented that it makes him feel that all those who wear pieces he has repaired or created are family.
Many of the items worn as part of their regalia have special significance.
Crowns (commonly beaded) worn by young girls and women indicate that they are a current princess. Princesses also receive a stipend to travel to other celebrations to represent their tribe or school.
After their year as princess they get to keep their crowns, but cannot wear them at celebrations—that right being reserved for only the current year’s princesses.
Dancers who wear bells that jingle on their regalia, those known as ‘jingle dancers,’ are considered to be medicine dancers. When members of the tribe become ill, the jingle dancers are summed to pray around them.
Some of the items on the regalia have personal significance.
Darrell Whitworth from Camas Prairie pointed to one of the feathers he wore attached to his coyote head piece and told the story of how he was thinking of a woman he knew but had not seen in quite a while when a red-tailed hawk flew over him and a feather fell from the hawk.
He took that as a sign that the woman was OK and when he called her that evening he found that she was, indeed, doing well. He then attached the feather to his head dress as a reminder and acknowledgement of that experience.
Despite the fact that many of the tribes represented at the Arlee powwow celebration were once warring nations, at the powwow they share a sense of community. Parts of their regalia may be unique to their tribe, but they sing and dance and drum together.
Wallace Shorty from the Navajo tribe who lives near Bluff, Utah, wore very impressive and authentic regalia of the Navajo which, in some ways made him stand out, but he also blended into the community — dancing and then singing and drumming with several groups of drummers.
Those who participated and even those who simply chose to attend a few of the events likely came away from the event with a feeling of peace and connection.
Listening to the singing and drumming while rounding the dance area or simply watching others move to the music surely created a sense of harmony.