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Warriors honored at Arlee Celebration

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ARLEE – The 121st Arlee Esqapqeyni began with a Snake Dance on Thursday afternoon, and the celebration continued through the weekend with many more traditional dances. 

In a single file line, dancers wearing regalia moved together in the wave-like pattern of a snake into the pavilion. The dance was chosen to honor the sacrifices made by military veterans. 

“This dance is done by the warriors and for the warriors as a sign of respect and strength,” said dancer Steve Lozar. “It’s very honorable.”

Before the Snake Dance began, Joe McDonald said warriors would take the path of a snake as 

they left camp or came back for either war or hunting. “Today, for the Fourth of July, we are honoring veterans with this dance,” he said. 

McDonald said military service is common among his culture. “The Indian people have been some of the first to volunteer for service, so we have many veterans who have served, and we want them to know that we are very proud.”

Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Chairman Ron Trahan said the Snake Dance was revived about a dozen years ago to honor the warriors from all wars as far back as anyone can remember.

Once the Snake Dance ended, many of the veterans at the celebration gathered under the pavilion and gave their name and rank while a crowd of several hundred people stood as a sign of respect. Tribal elder and World War II veteran Francis Stanger was in uniform with the veterans.   

Thousands of people openly attend the celebration each year but that wasn’t always the case. The Arlee Celebration Committee’s records note that the earliest evidence of an attempt to hold a “Fourth of July Powwow” was in 1891. “In the 1890s, traditional Indian dances were illegal under Bureau of Indian Affairs rules, and the Indian police and Flathead Indian Agent Peter Ronan used the threat of U.S. Army intervention to break up the dance.” 

In an effort to continue dancing, tribes came up with a plan to hold the celebration on the Fourth of July week. It was noted that the Bureau of Indian Affairs “found it difficult to argue that it should be illegal to celebrate the Fourth of July, although, for a time, government attempts to suppress traditional dances forced the tribes to hold them secretly.” 

This year, Senator Jon Tester sent a representative to the Thursday celebration to share the news that bipartisan legislation was passed in the Senate to help homeless veterans. Construction on the new Southwest Montana Veterans Home project in Butte recently began, and more work is being done to improve communication between veterans and the Department of Veterans Affairs. The letter said more needs to be done to support veterans. 

Three United States Navy representatives were at the celebration to accept a Flathead Indian Reservation flag to be flown on the USS Montana when construction on the submarine is finished in the next few years. It is commissioned to be one of the most high-tech warships in the U.S. Navy fleet. 

After the Snake Dance, Stipn Small Salmon spoke a few words and said a prayer. He served as the War Dance Chief. “This is a celebration for everybody, don’t care what color you are,” he said. He carried a staff that his father also carried as War Dance Chief about 40 years ago. 

Trahan said it was good to see so many people at the celebration. He also welcomed everyone. The dancing continued until Sunday.


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