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Emily Vessey joins her fellow Paxson Elementary School fourth-grade students in marching in the 2018 Festival of Remembrance procession in Missoula.

The Festival of Remembrance will go on, including Saturday's procession down Higgins Avenue in which groups and individuals can honor the dead.

"People should definitely know they are welcome to come in any way, shape or form that they choose to come. This is an open festival, and we want them to be able to express themselves however they want to," said Nikki Robb, one of the organizers. 

While many come in groups and many people in costumes, they can also show up and march on their own in street clothes if they like.

"If you want to walk in the procession and bring a memento to walk with of somebody you've lost or maybe a pet you've lost, we encourage that, or maybe you just want to come down in support of your culture and say, 'you know I'm here, this is an important day in my culture, I want to walk in the festival,' we are open to anybody coming down," she said.

This is the 27th annual festival, formed by Missoula artists as a multi-cultural way to grieve in a society that evades such conversations. 

Four years ago, a debate over cultural appropriation and the festival took hold in Missoula, and in response organizers made changes to center the events on grieving.

The format is roughly the same, though: Various workshops and panels typically culminate in a procession down Higgins Avenue, in which community groups, schools, and individuals can come dressed as they like and partake.

This year, the groups include Free Cycles, which is pedaling with a Community Remembrance Shrine in the procession, and a performance by the Salish drum group SnYelMn at the Circle Square gathering beforehand.

Paxson Elementary music teacher Erin Ensley's third- and fourth-graders will march her students in a New Orleans second-line with the River City Players brass band. They'll have lighted umbrellas, a tradition of funeral services in New Orleans. 

Kim Olson, a Paxson Elementary School teacher who's now on sabbatical, said they're trying to increase school participation again. "It's just a great venue for kids to learn about death and grief and dying in other countries," she said. She's had her students participate for 14 years.

This year, she helped coordinate classes from other schools. Three teachers from Washington Middle School (Tori Wilson, Lindsey King and Kate Varley) and Spanish teacher Carrie Anderson of Franklin Elementary had their kids present art projects at Family Friendly Friday at the Top Hat several weeks ago. Gwen Hoppe, the art teacher at Willard School, made Guatemalan kites with her students.

Olson led the kite project herself for more than a decade, and said "many of the kids actually do make their kite in honor of someone in their family, or someone they lost, or their pet" and they find it meaningful to march in public.

Four years ago, online and offline debates ensued about whether the event, formerly called the Festival of the Dead, constituted cultural appropriation. It's held on All Souls' Day, a Catholic holiday on Nov. 2 that is also the traditional end of Dia De Los Muertos, the Mexican holiday.

In a majority-white college town in which Halloween often balloons into a weeklong celebration, this often meant the festival was lumped in with a party atmosphere.

The ensuing debates included on one side locals with South and Central American backgrounds who supported an event that shares their culture, and on the other, some Latinx and indigenous residents who considered it offensive.

The Zootown Arts Community Center was sponsor of the festival for several years, but dropped out in 2017 after attempts to remove some of the activities, such as face-painting and sugar skull workshops, that were points of conflict. Since then, the ZACC backed out and it's reverted to a volunteer group of organizers trying to steer it further toward a grief-centered event, with a new fiscal sponsor, the Missoula Downtown Foundation.

They've made further adjustments this year, Robb said. They added a multi-cultural panel on dying and grief, held at the University of Montana, with faculty offering perspectives from varied backgrounds.

They screened a family-oriented movie, "Fly Away Home," at the Roxy Theater and had a grief counselor give the introduction.

They worked with the UM Entertainment Management Program's event-planning class to help plan, market and put on events.

"We need to include our community, our campus community, our downtown community, the campus community, so it was nice to be able to do some more things over there this year," she said.

It's all led to the procession itself, where organizers invite the public to participate.

"We hope that everybody comes that understands that some people are really experiencing a difficult loss and everybody's going to express it in a different way, so we ask that everybody be respectful to those around them, as usual," said co-organizer Tarn Ream.

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