The 25th annual Festival of the Dead begins Sunday, with a month's worth of classes and workshops culminating in the Nov. 2. procession through downtown.
The events are designed to spur discussion and contemplation of death, whether it's writing your own obituary, making art like a block print or building a shrine.
The nonprofit Zootown Arts Community Center, which has organized the festival for the past six years, made some adjustments to the offerings this year. Last fall, online debates emerged about whether the events constituted cultural appropriation of a Latin American tradition.
When the ZACC took over, "the intent was to bring back the educational component leading up to the procession" to make sure that it was meaningful to participants, said Kia Liszak, executive director.
In response to complaints, last year the ZACC stopped offering face-painting that uses Dia de los Muertos imagery at the procession. However, some residents have said the changes made this year are not enough.
This year the organizers thought about what it means to be a "multicultural, all-inclusive event," Liszak said, while encouraging participants to avoid cultural appropriation.
"We wanted to present more workshops that explore our own rituals around death," she said.
The new offerings include a workshop to make jewelry to remember a lost loved one; a "Notes to the Dead" journal-making session; and a class led by a ceramicist to make an urn for a lost loved one or pet.
There are public and private writing workshops to express thoughts about death through writing, which will culminate in a reading. Some of the private sessions, arranged with the Institute of Health and Humanities at the University of Montana, will be offered to doctors and nurses.
Liszak, an avid reader of obituaries, designed a "Write Your Own Obituary" workshop she'll lead with local novelist Richard Fifield ("The Flood Girls"). She hopes the session can encourage people to think about what they'd like to be remembered for. (She added that it would be light-hearted event.)
They've kept some traditions, such as the large-scale block print workshops and the steam-roller prints. The annual juried art show shares the theme with the 2017 festival, "Inheritance: Gifts from the Dead." Liszak said they use a new theme every year and vet the entries for appropriated imagery.
As in years past, they don't monitor how people march in the procession, only that they encourage people to be respectful. (Many local schools have their own programming in conjunction with the festival and march in the procession.)
They kept the sugar skull workshop and recruited a Missoula International School teacher to lead it. Liszak said the board felt removing the workshop would go against the spirit of a multicultural event. She said the ZACC has learned a lot from the dialogue over cultural appropriation, and hopes that the event can continue as a "multicultural, all-inclusive event."
Some community members think the changes are not adequate.
Rosalyn LaPier, who is Blackeet and Métis, teaches environmental science at the University of Montana. She's written a book on Native American religion and was a visiting professor at Harvard Divinity School last year.
"As an indigenous person and a scholar of indigenous religions and environment, I believe that no one should use indigenous religious practices and traditions for art or entertainment," LaPier wrote in an email. "This is a clear case of cultural appropriation of a religious practice (the event and activities) done on the actual day of the religious ritual."
She argues that most of the workshops have roots in religious practices: shrine building, for instance.
Furthermore, the procession down Higgins Avenue is held on Nov. 2, the same date as the Day of the Dead in large parts of the United States and Mexico.
She said objections raised last year haven't been addressed, such as the making of sugar skulls.
Regarding further adjustments the festival would need to make, LaPier said "they would need to change the day of the event, the name of the event and the activities related to indigenous religious practice," she said.
"If they are interested in American death practices and commemoration — why not do their festival on Memorial Day? Memorial Day is an American holiday specifically created to commemorate American soldiers, but now many Americans also use it as a day to commemorate their own relatives and ancestors."
LaPier said she and other community members are discussing protests, including the Sunday kick-off event at the Missoula Art Park, in addition to letters to the editor.
In a letter, Iko'tsimiskimaki "Ekoo" Beck of Missoula said the event is "interesting in concept" but "rife" with cultural appropriation of Dia de Los Muertos.
"I am Blackfeet, so I understand the feeling one gets when seeing their religious and cultural practices appropriated. It is one of invisibility. It feels as though no one really cares about your opinions or agency, that you are not being recognized as fully human. If I were to see a Sundance held by white people in downtown Missoula, I would be outraged. The Festival of the Dead is similar," she wrote.
"Missoula absolutely can honor the dead through a festival, but not with one that appropriates another culture and furthers the colonization of indigenous peoples. I encourage everyone to abstain from attending the Festival of the Dead," she wrote.
Missoula resident Bryan Ramirez has attended every year that he could, bringing his son, who's now 14. "It's beautiful," he said. "It's true to the concept of what Day of the Dead is supposed to be."
To him, people are honoring their deceased loved ones without engaging in any stereotypes that belittle his culture — he's half Mexican and was born in South Texas, where he has many relatives.
"I thought it was a fantastic thing. I never thought once about cultural appropriation. I feel like it's very Missoula," he said.
Janaína Vieira-Marques, a visual artist, teacher and festival board member, also believes the event is more Missoula than anything else. She attended Dia de Los Muertos for 30 years in her home country of Brazil, and described it as a multicultural event.
"São Paulo is a city of immigrants, with people from Japan, Israel, Lebanon and Turkey. Most of those people would embrace that day to celebrate and remember their ancestors despite their lack of connection to the Catholic Church," Vieira-Marques said in an email.
She's participated in the festival here for six years. Her Missoula Mandala Project in Caras Park blends many different cultural references, much like the festival as a whole.
"That is what a healthy and vibrant community should look like," she said. "If there is anyone that talks about this festival being an appropriation of a Mexican or a Latin America festival, it is clear to me that this person has not been involved in what really takes place in Missoula, and certainly hasn’t contributed to making the festival happen. Painted faces or sugar skulls are just a tiny part of this event that has some similarities to the Mexican Festival, which I see as an appreciation, not an appropriation."
She added that culture is continuously evolving, a frequent point when cultural appropriation is debated.
"We are the protagonists of our culture now and to keep 'culture' limited to a specific historical reference point is extremely limiting to our potential as people and a society. The ancient Aztecs would see contemporary Dia de los Muertos celebrations in Mexico as an appropriation also, right? How far back do you go to determine what true 'culture' is? And who decides the reference point? And who determines the people that can and can’t express that 'culture'?" she said.
Vieira-Marques and Liszak encouraged anyone to reach out to the ZACC and the festival board with any ideas or issues.
"I’m sure this community will welcome their contributions with open arms and sincere cultural appreciation," Vieira-Marques said.
Liszak said, "we are open to listening, changing and evolving the festival. We have been actively working to do so and we are aware that more changes probably need to occur. We are receiving a lot of input and varying views and we are in the process of taking it all in."
Tobin Miller Shearer, director of African-American Studies at UM, said he's not in a position to give organizers a "10-step program" it should undertake. But he said there are applicable principles in his field that are used to evaluate appropriation and fetishization of black culture.
First: Those who are authentically tied to the culture itself should be the ones making the call, he said. While this can raise questions about who is authentically representing a culture, "you know when someone is within a community and when someone is outside that community," he said.
The second question regards the purpose of the engagement with the cultural practice: Is it entertainment, or is it out of an authentic desire to learn and understand how another cultural group presents itself in the world?
"It's different when someone from inside the group invites outsiders to explain on their own terms," he said.
The third regards benefits: Who is making money or gaining status from the process?
There also are theories about white appropriation worth contemplating, he said.
"The white community in the main has had to let go of our own history and cultural practices in order to have access to power and privilege," he said. If you ask a white person to name a cultural practice, they often struggle to do so.
"What we see happen is that white people are trying to fill that cultural vacuum by taking it from other cultural groups," he said. "I'd have to say in a place like Missoula, that's what's going on."