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First powwow
Dancing in a pair of new moccasins, 4-year-old Kristan Hewankorn of Polson, center, makes the ornaments on her jingle dress rattle Friday while powwowing with hundreds of others in the annual Flathead Reservation Head Start Powwow in St. Ignatius.
Photo by KURT WILSON/Missoulian

Head Start event in St. Ignatius attracts hundreds as children take their initial tribal dance steps

ST. IGNATIUS - This year's Flathead Reservation Head Start Powwow held Friday in St. Ignatius was a far cry from the very first one held 28 years ago in Arlee.

''For that first powwow, we had to kill some chickens the night before to get some feathers for the kids' costumes,'' said Lolita Hendrickson, who with Head Start administrator Jeanne Christopher started the event when there were only two Head Start centers on the entire reservation - one in Arlee and one in Mission/St. Ignatius.

Christopher still directs Head Start on the reservation, and Hendrickson serves as the agency's parent services administrative assistant. But Hendrickson is in charge of the powwow, ''and what she says goes,'' Christopher observed while helping in the kitchen.

Johnny Arlee, now a tribal elder, was the only drummer at that first Head Start Powwow, Hendrickson said. Arlee was in attendance again Friday, but this year's celebration boasted at least seven drum groups, each with five or more drummers singing Salish and Kootenai songs and beating thump-thump-thump-thump on their big drums to keep time for the hundreds of dancers who moved 'round and 'round the gym serpentine fashion in that soft and stately tribal way.

A total of 236 children attended from some 14 Head Start groups in Polson, Ronan, Pablo, Arlee and Mission. They included children from Early Head Start (ages newborn to 3) and Home Start, in which preschool children and parents are visited by a Head Start teacher once a week in their homes, as well as traditional, site-based Head Start.

Nobody knows how many others attended - perhaps 500, perhaps more - including several council members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. The gym was full to bursting when the grand entry started, and folks were still arriving at 11 a.m., before lunch was served.

''This year, we're honoring 'q'ene' and 'yaya,' both mean grandma in Salish, depending on if a boy or girl is speaking. In Kootenai the words are 'kapapa' and 'katit.' The grandmas are the ones leading the procession,'' Hendrickson said.

Actually, members of the Flathead Reservation Veteran Warriors Society danced out in front when the grand entry began about 10:15 a.m. at the St. Ignatius Indian Community Center, following prayers by tribal elders and cultural leaders. These veteran warriors carried coup sticks and flags, wore elaborate headdresses, and set the proper tone of dignity and restraint with their posture and footwork.

Then came the yayas, hundreds of them it seemed, some in tribal fancy dress, some in street clothes, and they were followed by the Head Start kids of virtually all available ethnic and cultural backgrounds. No admission was charged, and everyone who showed up was welcome. The younger children were carried by caregivers, - moms, dads, uncles aunts and yayas - or pushed in strollers.

Each participating child got a big grocery sack full of goodies - a sack lunch, some costume materials and the powwow piece de resistance: a pair of authentic Indian moccasins, made from traditional brain-tanned buckskin (which traditionalists believe makes the softest, most durable leather), hand-stitched and decorated with intricate beadwork in traditional motifs by 14 tribal artisans from across the reservation, most of whom are also yayas, Hendrickson said.

These moccasin makers are paid a modest $30 for each pair they tan, sew and bead. But almost everything else at the powwow is donated and brought by participants in the best potluck Indian fashion, including the hundreds of fry bread buns. One dedicated yaya, Gloria Whitworth, made 250 fry bread buns this week for the occasion, Hendrickson said. Desserts and fresh fruit, coffee, juice and all the fixin's for Indian tacos - 16 one-gallon cans of red beans, some 80 pounds of ground meat, an acre-foot or two of cheddar cheese and other garnishes - were donated. Parents brought many of the garnishes, and Head Start staff cooked the chili and brought cake and fruit trays for dessert.

Kids danced inside the gym and when they were tired of dancing played outside on the grass.

Laudin Zimmerer of Ronan, only 3 weeks old, just looked on curiously without making a sound, snuggled comfortably into a handcrafted cradleboard made of willow that was carefully laced up with buckskin laces by his own yaya, April Zimmerer.

Outside, a stocky 4-year-old boy in fancy dress ran helter-skelter between groups of adults visiting with one another and some smaller children posing for their very first powwow photographs.

''I want to play, I want to play,'' he shouted.

''We didn't come here to play - we came here to powwow,'' his mother (or perhaps it was his yaya) said firmly, and back inside they went.

The powwow concept fits in well with Head Start's mission, Hendrickson said.

''We are very involved with the family, so the goal is to be their second-best teacher, because the parents are the first-best teachers,'' Hendrickson said. ''We do activities that promote social interaction and parent involvement.''

Reporter John Stromnes can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at

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