In an ancient homeland, in the heart of the Missoula Valley, on a corner of South Fourth and Garfield, a front door opens onto choreographed chaos.
Just a fraction of Luanne Kickingwoman’s extended family is inside, but they are many — sons and grandchildren, nieces, grandnieces and grandnephews, one sister and Kickingwoman’s husband, Allen Addison.
“We’re missing quite a few,” Kickingwoman sighs, with either relief or regret.
The blood that runs through their collective veins is of Salish, Blackfeet, Assiniboine and Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, Crow, Gros Ventre, Turtle Mountain Chippewa, Cree, Ojibwe and probably a few others.
It’s a Tuesday, 10 days before the milestone 50th annual Kyiyo Celebration is set to begin at the University of Montana. That, in turn, will be the start of another busy spring and summer on the powwow circuit for the Kickingwoman family.
Tonight is shakeout night.
“What we’re doing is just kind of pulling out the regalia for all the different kids to make sure things fit or find out how we have to make adjustments to make them fit,” says Kickingwoman.
A pair of last year’s moccasins need mending. Luann’s third son, Francis Kickingwoman Jr., unrolls hair roaches from the elastic bands in which they’ve been stored since September. He runs down the convergence of hairs from a porcupine (not the quills) and a white-tail deer that make up the roach.
“And the new ones that they’re coming out with these days are these, so they don’t have to take the hairs out and they can make 'em on their own,” Francis says, picking up a larger roach that one of his three sons will wear at Kyiyo. “It’s synthetic. It’s like nylon. And they still have white-tail deer hair.”
The two eagle feathers that crown the roach are gifts from his late father, Francis Sr., who with Luanne raised their five boys on the powwow lifestyle.
Francis died of a heart attack in 2012, on the eve of the 44th Kyiyo powwow. He became a champion Blackfeet traditional dancer after spending his youth traveling to powwows with his own parents, Melvin and Maryann (Parker) Kickingwoman. Among his favorite activities was designing and make dance outfits for his boys: Daniel, Thomas, Francis, Jr., Jacob and Anthony.
Francis Sr.’s bustle holds a place of honor on one wall of the living room.
Four-year-old Rhiaunna stands on the coffee table alongside her 8-year-old sister Aliyah. They spin around, modeling the colorful skirts for Giselle Forrest, Luanne’s niece.
Rhiaunna claps her hands in excitement when Forrest proclaims her "nide eha ubi" (Nakota for skirt) a "perfect fit.”
“Now you can take them home,” Forrest tells the girls. “I don’t have to take care of them no more.”
Like Kickingwoman’s sons, Forrest is a Big Sky High School graduate and still lives in Missoula. An alum of UM, from which she graduated in 2001, she grew up dancing at powwows, including Kyiyo, and helped put the event on as a member of the Kyiyo Native American Student Association.
This year Forrest has been selected head woman dancer. She’ll be sharing the honor for the 50th with two others, Iva Croff of Browning and Cher Old Elk-Stewart of St. Ignatius. Forrest’s counterpart as head men’s dancer is Dustin Whitford of Rocky Boy, who was president of the Kyiyo Club for the 40th powwow in 2008. He'll be joined by Bob Tailfeathers of Browning and Leon Old Elk-Stewart of St. Ignatius.
On Saturday afternoon, Thomas Kickingwoman, Luanne’s second-oldest son and the lead musician of the bunch, will sing the contest and honor songs for his cousin’s “special.”
“When you’re asked to be the head woman dancer it’s kind of a high honor,” Luanne explains. “To reciprocate, you host a special for the powwow committee. She’s doing it for women who are 40 and over in the traditional category, so she’ll have this contest for the women and family members judge it.”
That’s why Forrest made the skirts for the girls: “To make sure they’d be a part of it,” Kickingwoman says.
They are two of 13 outfits Forrest has made for the occasion to give away.
"Assiniboine (Nakota) often sponsor giveaways in honor of being selected as head staff," she explains later.
Forrest retires to a couch, where she and Sarah Finley are sewing what look like rolled-up snuff can lids on a long, white ribbon. Finley is mother of three of the youngest children here. Her mother, Brenda Finley, Luanne’s sister, is in charge of cuddling 2-month-old Logan in the kitchen.
Rhyanne, who’s 16 months, toddles over to Sarah and grabs an end of the ribbon to examine as Forrest explains what it’s all about.
You can’t hear it here tonight, but come next weekend there’ll be the distinctive sound of soft clinking from all the jingle dresses in the Adams Center, “like that of rain on a tin roof,” a powwow veteran says.
“It has rows of jingles on the bottom so they make noise," Forrest says. "We’re going to try to get something for Rhyanne, the youngest girl, to wear.”
She has some Ojibwe in her blood and the women's Jingle Dress Dancing is believed to have its roots in Ojibwe country — Wisconsin, Minnesota or Ontario. It, too, may be marking a significant milestone anniversary, this one the 100th.
One version says it grew out of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, when a man saw the jingle dress and dance in a dream and instructed his gravely ill daughter in it. She recovered and went on to form the first Jingle Dress Dance Society, according to Brenda Child, who wrote a chapter for the 2008 book "Reflections on American Indian History: Honoring the Past, Building a Future."
What makes nights like this special?
Kickingwoman chuckles at her own analogy. “It’s kind of like how you’d say a family prepares for a bar mitzvah,” she says. “It’s just something that naturally happens, but if it doesn’t, it feels like something is not complete. It’s like a message for family and kids that things are going to be OK and go forward.”
It’s important to keep the children involved in dancing, singing and participating, she says, and these gatherings are ways of “bringing all the kids and family back into the circle."
Though Tuesday’s get-together has a specific purpose, it’s far from the only one here at the Kickingwoman home.
“Everybody comes to watch ‘The Walking Dead,’ ” deadpans Addison, the man Luanne married after Francis died, and whose powwow roots run deep as well. He was vice president of the Kyiyo Club at UM in 1978, and he’s coordinating a Powwow and Graduate Honoring that's set for May 11 and 12 at Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, where Addison is an instructor and data specialist.
Summers also revolve around Kickingwoman’s sons’ 3-on-3 basketball tournaments in Missoula, Polson, Hoopfest in Spokane, and others.
“We’ve been having Sunday dinners for at least the last month, just so we can figure out what we’re going to do and map the summer out,” Kickingwoman says.
The powwow circuit will take them to local celebrations such as Arlee, Elmo and Browning, as well as more distant ones in Idaho, Washington and Oregon.
Kyiyo, which lost the hyphen in its name a couple of years back, means “bear” in the Blackfeet language. It’s a fitting name for an American Indian club at UM, home of the Grizzlies, and it’s fitting that Earl Old Person of Browning is the honorary master of ceremonies each year. Old Person is marking his 40th year as chief of the Blackfeet Nation, a lifetime appointment.
Luanne Kickingwoman wasn’t at the first Kyiyo powwow in 1969, when it was held in the upstairs ballroom of the new University Center. But she carries fond memories of dancing and socializing along with her mother, Liz Brown, and her sisters and brother at the UM powwows as youngsters. Those started in about 1974, she figures.
The Brown family lived in Dixon before moving to Missoula in 1976.
“I just remember the anticipation of going to Missoula,” Kickingwoman says. “There was me and four siblings. My mom came home from work and then we had to pack up our outfits, pack up clothes and make sure we had everything.”
It was exciting to stay in a Missoula hotel, walk into the Adams Center and “just getting to see our friends, make new friends and doing the dancing and drumming,” she says.
Kickingwoman hopes her children and their children feel the same buzz. Families at powwows sit in their own sections in lawn chairs or on the bleachers.
“Everybody’s happy, everybody knows their place, everyone’s included, nobody’s excluded,” Kickingwoman says. “Everybody has an idea of how the night’s going to progress with dancing and drumming, the beginning of it and ending of it. There’s that unity that everybody has, all the different tribes and (families) coming together in one place to celebrate being Indian."
You dance, says Addison, for those who are unable to dance, those who have passed on or are sick or aging. Even Logan, Sarah Finley's 2-month-old, will be out on the floor in someone's arms. For 1-year-old Rhyanne, it'll already be her second Kyiyo.
“You’re trying to remember everybody,” Luanne Kickingwoman says. “It’s an indescribable atmosphere that makes you feel really, really proud of who you are.”