The Missoula Festival of the Dead is now the Festival of Remembrance.
The annual event, started by local artists in 1993 as a multi-cultural way to acknowledge death, will follow a similar format to years' past: educational events, art activities and performances, culminating in a procession through downtown on Nov. 2.
Tarn Ream said she and fellow organizers "recognize the importance again of having conversations around death and dying and grief rather than just pushing it way or pushing it aside. And that was our main reason for continuing forward with what we're doing, in the hopes that Missoula will engage in that same way," Ream said.
Whether the event would continue at all was an open question after last year. In the month preceding the procession, a debate broke out about cultural appropriation and whether it was offensive for a majority-white community to take part in an event that resembled the Latin American holiday of Dia de Los Muertos, one of many of the festival's original inspirations.
The tone of the debate became caustic enough that the fiscal sponsor and lead organization, the nonprofit Zootown Arts Community Center, announced that it would no longer be involved. A new fiscal sponsor, the Missoula Downtown Foundation, has since stepped forward.
In January, a volunteer committee began re-thinking an event that drew both criticism and support from the Latino community, as well as pointed objections from Montana indigenous people.
Nikki Robb, one of the organizers, began doing outreach.
"If we wanted to keep this event going, we had to do research and talk to community members and people from both sides of the argument," she said.
She wanted to know what changes they'd like to see, and what they thought of proposed changes.
Among the people and groups she talked to were Udo Fluck, who formerly led an international program at the University of Montana; Meg Singer of the ACLU of Montana, which opposed the festival last year; Ashby Kinch, an English professor specializing in Medieval studies; Deena Mansour, the associate director of the Mansfield Center; Rafael Chacón, an art history and criticism professor; and EmpowerMT, a nonprofit focused on social justice and leadership.
The new name is the most obvious change — they felt "remembrance" is more inclusive of all cultures and might clear some confusion with Dia de los Muertos. Some Latino community members objected to moving the date, and so it has remained on Nov. 2.
They reached out to the Hmong and Japanese communities to see if they'd like to be involved. A Salish drum group, SnYelMn, will perform before the procession. Robb said they hope they find more indigenous organizations in the future.
Overall, people told Robb that the committee should be more diverse, the content should be more broad and that education should be important. While they had luck getting different groups to meet and talk with the committee, they've so far had difficulty enlisting any to join.
The schedule of events they developed, which starts on Sunday, is heavy on learning.
"Our main focus was education, education, education," Ream said.
On Sunday, they'll screen a Japanese movie, "Kubo," at the Roxy Theater (see schedule), accompanied by guest speakers on Japanese death rituals, and a UM Japanese professor will answer questions. The UM School of Art is inviting Reinaldo Zambrano Gil, an art professor from Eastern Washington University. A native of Venezuela who's also lived in Costa Rica will lead a mural project and give a lecture. Kinch's students are collaborating with dancers on a multimedia performance inspired by Medieval practices. Kim Olsen, a teacher from Paxson School, is leading a Guatemalan kite project with her students, who will present what they learned.
Chacón's Latin American art class will host a debate on the festival and cultural appropriation. Last year, students in one of his classes did the same regarding the removal of Confederate war monuments.
"The Oxford-style debate was a successful civil forum for a discussion on an important art-related topic affecting the country," he wrote in an email. "This year, I wanted to try it in my Latin American Art class with a controversial topic closer to home."
In the art category, organizers are planning a "spontaneous remembrance altar," where community members can contribute drawings, writings or other art to remember dead loved ones. Local poets will have a reading themed on death and grief.
The final event is the procession through downtown, where residents and organizations can march or display a float.
"As long as we feel like we can be educating the public about other cultures and how they look at death, and make sure that people have that broad understanding, then they'll have a better sensibility" about how they can participate, Ream said.