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First celebration powwow canceled in 122-year history

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ARLEE – Pamela Askan has been attending the Arlee Celebration since she was a little kid. She can’t remember a year when she missed the event. This year, the powwow grounds will be empty the first weekend in July for the first time since the powwow started in 1898. Askan said the powwow’s cancellation this year will leave a hole in her summer schedule.

“It will just be pretty quiet,” she said. “I don’t really know what I’m going to do for the Fourth of July at this point.”

The Arlee Celebration Committee recommended that the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council cancel this year’s event and the council agreed. Askan, a member of the committee, said the group made their recommendation based on safety considerations for the Flathead Reservation community, tribal elders and residents of the areas around the reservation in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Askan said the committee didn’t think the event could be held without risking the health of 

community members. The committee thought a lot about the risks to tribal elders, who play important roles in the powwow and are at higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19. Tribal elders also hold irreplaceable cultural knowledge, so their health and safety are of great importance to the committee. 

While she knows canceling the event was the right thing to do, Askan said it was a difficult decision. “Everybody looks forward to it,” Askan said. “It’s really going to be a bummer for everybody this summer.”

Askan said this summer is the first time she knows of that the event has been canceled. The powwow is one of the biggest events of the year on the reservation. The event draws hundreds of people. The six-day powwow features vendors, contests and camping.  

Askan said the powwow is important to the local tribal community and to Native American people from different tribal nations across the United States. 

The event’s deep history is one thing that makes the Arlee powwow stand out, Askan said. Visitors look forward to exploring the beauty of the Flathead Reservation. “It’s a celebratory time,” she said. “Everybody comes together to share their culture and traditions with their friends and families.” 

According to a book by Robert Bigart, the first Arlee powwow was likely held in 1898. At that time, the Bureau of Indian Affairs had deemed traditional Native American dancing illegal in an attempt to keep indigenous people from connecting with their culture. 

BIA officers threatened the tribe with U.S. Army violence if they held a powwow; however, the BIA allowed tribal people to celebrate the Fourth of July with a powwow, so the event started as an expression of cultural pride and resistance toward the federal government’s attempts to force Native Americans to assimilate to European culture. 

While the event won’t be held this year, it will live on in the future. The committee hasn’t started planning the 2021 celebration yet but Askan said it will be a special one. “We want to come back with something big,” she said. 

The St. Ignatius Good Old Days summer event is also canceled this year, along with the Fourth of July Arlee Rodeo.  


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