One of the coldest Festival of the Dead processions in recent memory went on as planned Thursday, despite snow and wind that drove the temperature to around 30 degrees.
Many of the Missoula traditions were on display: a jazz band with six horns and two percussionists. Oversized steamroller prints from the University of Montana. The Dead Debutantes, some of whom helped found the festival, marched with a photograph in honor of one of their mothers who passed away.
Some in the crowd and some in the procession wore skull make-up, some with distinctly Mexican flourishes, one of the reasons the future of the event isn't clear.
Earlier in the afternoon, the nonprofit Zootown Arts Community Center announced that it was backing out as fiscal sponsor, citing concerns and protests over cultural appropriation.
The decision came after a lengthy debate over the issue at the festival, which was started a quarter-century ago by two Missoula artists who imagined it as a "multi-cultural, all-inclusive" way to acknowledge death in a culture that shuns grieving.
In the past two years, increasing numbers of community members have argued that it's an offensive appropriation of indigenous culture and religious practices in a predominantly white city.
In the statement, the ZACC said they'd listened to many perspectives on the festival in the past few months leading up to the decision.
"We feel, as an arts community center with year-round programming, it is best for us to step down from being the umbrella of the Festival Of The Dead procession as it is, so we can concentrate on our true work, which is to provide accessible art experiences for the community," according to the ZACC statement. "We are not equipped to be on the forefront of the cultural appropriation conversation and it is not our mission to do so, and we have great respect for the argument that we are not the correct people to spearhead the festival."
The ZACC will help with the search for a "new committee or organization to step forward who can give better guidance for the festival to grow and evolve and make valuable change while preserving what is meaningful. Many people from the Latinx community in Missoula have stepped forward in support of the event, and joined in the discussion of how best to evolve and we are happy to supportively put it into their hands. New energy is forming around the event that I think will be very positive in the end."
ZACC said it would like to continue working with the Hospice of Missoula, the Institute of Health and Humanities and others "to do what we do best — provide art workshops for the Missoula community to explore their feelings around death throughout, but we will not be the organizers of the procession."
In a joint email statement, the Montana Racial Equity Project and Montana Human Rights Network said they were pleased with the decision. The statement was endorsed by EmpowerMT of Missoula and the YWCA of Missoula.
"Our organizations have met with Indigenous members of the Missoula community and supporters who have expressed to us why they are hurt, offended, and dehumanized over the cultural and religious appropriation of the Festival of the Dead. We get it; it is another expression of colonialism. We urge Missoulians to come together and start healing. Learning in safe spaces where everyone of different views can attend and feel comfortable is a start.
"We applaud the Zootown Arts Community Center (ZACC) decision to no longer act as fiscal sponsor for this event and look forward to working with ZACC staff in future in their effort to work towards healing and learning in the Missoula community through their various arts and humanities programs. We recognize this will take time, patience, and encouragement which we are confident the Missoula community has in abundance."
Rosalyn LaPier, who is Blackfeet and Metis, teaches environmental studies at the University of Montana and is an expert on indigenous religions. This year, she and others raised objections to the use of indigenous religious practices for art and entertainment, comparing the procession to a Mardi Gras party scene in which participants don't know why they're dressing up or dancing.
She said the ZACC statement doesn't address issues she and others raised about cultural appropriation and racism. She added that helping find a new committee, which already exists separately of the ZACC, and handing off the parade while still offering workshops she says are problematic and means that it's "business as usual."
Six years ago, the ZACC stepped in to help organize the festival and took over the programming entirely three years ago. The ZACC and fellow organizers increased the number of free, educational workshops to underscore the meaning of the event: mourning the dead. This year, such offerings included obituary-writing sessions, urn-making workshops, and more.
They've reiterated that they don't "monitor" the procession itself, in which hundreds of people from numerous community groups, schools and individuals generate their own costumes and concepts.
The festival was originally started by artists Michael deMeng and Bev Beck Glueckert as an artistic way of acknowledging death. They were inspired by Dia de los Muertos but intended it as a Missoula event that welcomed people to partake in their own traditions.
Nevertheless, the prevalence of face-painting and specific traditions such as sugar skulls were cited by critics as proof that the festival is appropriative.
Last year, the ZACC stopped offering face-painting for the annual procession, held on Nov. 2, and encouraged community members to be mindful of cultural appropriation. After meeting with groups like the Racial Equity Project and the MHRN, the nonprofit decided to back out entirely.
The number of participants in the march on Thursday seemed smaller than prior years. Fewer schools participated. The number of observers, including families with small children, that lined both sides of the street seemed strong considering the wind, snow and cold that moved into the valley earlier in the day.
Assistant director Molly Murphy and staff members from Tamarack had buckets of hundreds of roses to pass out. Each one had a small card that said, "Remember. Honor. Live. Celebrate. Dance," and "We offer this flower to you in honor of those you have loved and lost." One year they saw someone who had returned with a dried flower from a previous year.
The Dead Debutantes, whose members include founders like Glueckert, were out. They usually have 14 to 15 women in black, with skull masks and sometimes beehive hairdos. They also march in bee suits in the WildWalk for the International Wildlife Film Festival to raise awareness about the insects' importance to the ecosystem.
This year, they were helping Kim West carrying a picture of her mother, who died in December at age 91.
Glueckert said the group is based on "positive energy and inclusion," and is diverse in its members, which made the controversy difficult to watch.
"We're a little bit more somber this year," Glueckert said. "This is hard to see a lot of division when that's the overall thing happening in our country. When it's happening here in our own town, that's kind of tough to take." If the festival is to survive, she said, it will have to be taken on by Latinx community members.
Regardless, she said, the Debutantes will gather in some fashion every Nov. 2.