Arlee Celebration unites community
ARLEE — Thousands of people will flood into Arlee this week for the 116th annual Arlee Celebration, but event organizers say the true meaning of the festivities is not found in the dance competition or craft sales that draw people from faraway places. Instead, the heart of the celebration lies within the comradeship and culture the Native American community comes together to experience.
“Some people have the misunderstanding that it is a show to watch,” organizer Shandin Pete said. “They view it as an attraction, but for the people who go and camp out it is really a chance to go and experience culture.”
Other Native American celebrations in other places have devolved into dance competitions only, Pete said, but in Arlee, the event still offers a chance to get in touch with tradition.
The Arlee Celebration is a five-day event sponsored by the event’s committee and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. It kicks off on Wednesday, July 2 with Camper’s Day. Pete notes that the celebration is one of the last Native American gatherings in western Montana where tipi poles are available so families can pitch tipis. There are usually several tipis at the Arlee Powwow Grounds, where families celebrate together and see relatives who come home from across the country. The reunions occur in the midst of an informal stick game tournament that presents a great opportunity for loving relatives to have a light-hearted rivalry.
On Thursday, Old Style Day offers a chance for community members to steep themselves in cultural practices that have fallen out of touch with contemporary practices.
The lineup includes old songs and dances that aren’t commonly heard in the modern age. Pete said it is a reminder of the Tribes’ origins.
“Our ancestors didn’t celebrate like we do and dance to win money or show off,” Pete said. “It had a much more practical purpose. It evolved from something that was very spiritual.”
Organizer Salisha Old Bull, committee chair, said carving out time for Old Style Days was a priority for the current planning committee.
“It is an effort to encourage people to not forget our culture,” Old Bull said.
Cultural celebration is how the Arlee Celebration got its start more than a century ago, according to Old Bull. The local tribes set aside the summer celebration as a time to rest and take a break. When the federal government took control of the reservation some early Indian agents sent police to stop the celebrations, but the Tribes’ persisted, Old Bull said.
Today, the celebration is free and open to the public, unlike many major powwows in the west.
“We pride ourselves on it being free,” Old Bull said.
On Friday, Saturday, and Sunday a huge competition of between 400 and 500 dancers takes place, with some opportunity for intertribal dances. The fancy footwork and drumbeats draw large crowds that have the opportunity to also peruse vendor’s craft and food wares.
“Some crafts, some foods, are traditional and you can’t find them anywhere else and any time,” Old Bull said.
The event brings between 2,000 and 3,000 people to the grounds, she added.
“It’s something that’s for everyone,” Old Bull said. “It doesn’t belong to any one person.”
The celebration calendar is as follows:
Wednesday, July 2
7 p.m. Material Stickgame
Thursday, July 3
Old Style Day
Noon Borrowing Wives and Painting each others faces
1:30 p.m. Scalp Dance
5:30 p.m. Coffee Dance
7 p.m. War Dance
8 p.m. Ride Parade
Friday, July 4
2 p.m. Snake Dance
7 p.m. Competition Grand Entry
Saturday, July 5
9 a.m. Powwow Trail Run/Walk
1 p.m Grand entry
7 p.m. Grand entry
Sunday, July 6
10 a.m. Indian Mass
2 p.m. Grand entry