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'I tell my students this,' says Tarn Ream, who teaches West African dance classes at the University of Montana. 'I will learn a dance, and I will learn a dance, and I will learn a dance, and I will learn a dance, and I will keep learning that dance until I feel it.'

I am writing to share a few experiences and comments about the Missoula Festival of the Dead as the coordinator of this event, and as a long-time performer in the annual November 2 procession. The Festival has always encouraged community conversations about mortality, including traditions from numerous cultures, to confront death without fear and celebrate life. The Festival is committed to respecting and cultivating individual and communal expressions of death, loss, transitions, and grief, and, as such, does not dictate the content (nor mood) of the procession (other than what is required of us by the City of Missoula parade permit and parade insurance—no motor vehicles, no throwing candy/flowers, no fire). The Festival organizing committee has opened its meetings to anyone who is interested in shaping the events and educational opportunities available to our community. The committee is also interested in holding a community conversation about cultural (mis)appropriation and appreciation.

I have learned so much from participating in this festival, as well as being a teacher of traditional art forms of a culture that is not mine (though I admit I have not had my genetic testing done yet, so the jury is out on that!). Throughout time people have ‘borrowed’ aesthetically-pleasing ‘things’ from other cultures/groups, whether that be a strand of music, an instrument, materials, designs, on and on, to more fully explore their individual expression--which, in turn, can change a cultural tradition. This does not excuse folks who choose to flippantly use these traditions to their own benefit. The educational component of the Missoula Festival of the Dead is pretty striking, and honestly we don’t have a full grip on it, due to our choice not to control what appears on the streets of Missoula each November 2.

I have seen grade schools, elementary schools, high schools, and University of Montana classes present amazing and meaningful artwork inspired by other cultures. Hats off to all the hard working teachers who take the initiative every year to educate their students, not only on other cultures, but on cathartic pathways for healing in the face of death. They have not just stood and lectured about another culture, they have integrated history, art, cultural traditions, geography, and maybe some math and science and etc. to create a piece of art. It is a beautiful model to nurture appreciation, empathy, compassion, respect, global perspectives, conversations about mortality, etc. and potentially move away from appropriation.

Each year I am brought to tears by poignant and personal artwork people have created to honor loved ones. Displaying artwork generally takes a great deal of bravery and trust in the community support of these efforts—particularly when it involves death. The Missoula Festival of the Dead procession creates a communal embrace of honor and respect of this display. I am grateful to past and present organizers and committee members—all volunteers whose dedication to creating a supportive atmosphere and perseverance in the face of tight finances and difficult circumstances show great love of our community, as do our sponsors.

In light of the current negative and divisive political atmosphere, the Missoula Festival of the Dead organizing committee would like to host community conversations to address cultural (mis)appropriation. We want to hear personal stories, as well as learn how to be better allies. We also would love to strike up conversations about future potential workshops that can assist the Festival of the Dead events and procession in drawing our community together through the arts and allow personal expression to shine a light on our common experience of death.

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