ARLEE – Just outside town, 340 dancers moved to the beat of the drum.
Kenny McClure led the first grand entry Saturday at the powwow during the 116th annual Arlee Celebration. McClure was given the honor of holding the sacred eagle staff in front of a color guard bearing the United States, Canada and Confederated Salish and Kootenai flags.
Men in chicken dance regalia spun on the outside ring of the grand entry as women in jingle dresses, silver and gold chimes sewn into their skirts, rang as they moved.
Arlee Celebration committee chairwoman Salisha Old Bull said that the day before more than 400 dancers participated.
“A lot of local people come in from town for the day to dance and take part in the celebration on the Fourth of July,” she said.
Crowds Saturday filled the bleachers and set up lawn chairs around the central dance floor of the powwow pavilion.
Over the course of the five-day celebration that began Wednesday, Old Bull said organizers anticipate more than 2,000 spectators will attend in addition to the dancers and their families.
“This is the biggest celebration that happens on the reservation all year,” she said.
Old Bull said in the past few days, she had met people from as far away as Hawaii, and even a couple from France.
“I don’t know what brought them out here. They said they were stopping in to watch on their trip through,” she said.
During the grand entry, Alec Quequesah delivered a prayer for good fortune for the dancers and spectators. He also asked everyone in attendance to say a silent prayer for a woman who had died at the powwow grounds earlier that morning (see related story).
Local Salish drum group Yamn’Cut played the traditional Victory Song to close out the grand entry.
“Dance because you can, dance because you’re free, dance for your elders,” said master of ceremonies Gayle Skunk Cap.
Some of the dancers, like rodeo riders, spend all summer, and in some cases all year, traveling the country competing in powwows for prize money, Old Bull said.
Across the powwow grounds, mothers made last-minute adjustments to their children’s outfits while adult dancers stopped to straighten their headpieces and feather bustles. Vendors had their stands stocked with everything from traditional beadwork and blankets to Indian tacos and frybread.
Anthony Klein of Spokane said this was his second year attending the Arlee Celebration.
Klein, 19, said although he has been to larger powwows in Idaho and Washington, he was impressed with how many people came out in the much smaller town of Arlee.
“It’s full of good culture, good dancers and good drums,” he said.
On Saturday the Arlee Celebration also had a special honor dance to pay tribute to four Salish-Pend d’Oreille elders: Hank Baylor, Rachel Arlee Bowers, Clara Bourdon, and Frances Vanderburg.
“These are people who have been very involved in preserving our cultural ways, and supporting their community,” Old Bull said.
Looking around the powwow grounds, it was clear that the tradition and heritage continue to run strong.
“We’ve been doing this for 116 years, but that’s nothing compared to how long our people have been on this land,” Old Bull said.