ARLEE — Trailers and tepees stood side-by-side on the fields east of Arlee on Saturday. They served as temporary homes for families who had gathered from across North America for the 120th Arlee Celebration.
This powwow brings six days of Native American dances, ceremonies and sports to the Flathead Reservation — and a lot of logistics for Arlee Celebration Committee Chairman David Durgeloh Jr., to manage.
“We started planning in September of last year,” he said. After months of legwork, Durgeloh had to keep things running smoothly in this ephemeral city, the size of which he estimates at 4,500 guests. In between fixing a broken water main and helping prepare for Saturday’s grand entry ceremony, he recalled the Arlee Celebration’s long history.
The region's far-flung tribes, he explained, had long met periodically to exchange such goods as salt and salmon from the Pacific Coast, bison from the Plains and medicinal plants from the mountains.
“Missoula was our gathering spot,” said Durgeloh, who also teaches Native American studies and language at Salish Kootenai College.
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These meetings assumed their modern form in the 1890s, when traditional Native American celebrations met bans and suppression from the U.S. government. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes worked around this problem by holding an event on the Fourth of July, and telling federal authorities they were simply celebrating the nation’s birthday.
The ploy worked, and the Arlee Celebration has been held around this time every year for 12 decades.
“120 years, it’s amazing,” Durgeloh said. “It’s something that our people should be proud of, that it’s still going, it’s still here.”
This is Durgeloh’s first year as chairman, but his family has long been involved with the event. Durgeloh described his late grandmother, Dolly Linsbigler, as “the one that taught us the powwow way….the traditional things we need to include with a good celebration.”
One of those routines is the grand entry.
“The grand entry more or less is the parade of all the nations coming in,” Durgeloh explained. At 1 p.m., hundreds of attendees in feathered, beaded regalia lined up behind tribal members holding ceremonial staffs and the U.S., Canadian and Flathead Nation flags.
To a pounding drum, they marched and danced into the powwow grounds' pavilion, their procession coiling around the flags as Arlee Celebration Committee Vice-Chairman Jerome Lumpry urged each participant to “dance your style!”
Some of the roughly 500 dancers will leave with hundreds of dollars in competition prize money for their performances, and that isn’t the Celebration’s only draw. Thanks to organizers’ aggressive online outreach, it now has about 60 vendors, “the most vendors that Arlee has ever had.” Food offerings range from “Indian Tacos” served on fry bread to Jamaican jerk chicken.
But, Durgeloh made clear, the Arlee Celebration isn’t just a carnival. The event has left him confident that the participating tribes’ age-old culture is alive and well.
“When we introduce the royalty” — the winners of pageants put on by participating tribes — “the little ones get up and they're speaking in their own language, their native tongue….It gives me goosebumps to see it. They used to say our language is dying, but not now, it’s coming back, and it’s amazing.”
The Celebration is “still going, it's still here, and hopefully, this younger generation will keep it going, the way it should.”
A member of that younger generation, Ardon McDonald, is already taking on a key role in the Arlee Celebration: Head Man Dancer. “I’ve been dancing all my life,” he said.
At 17, McDonald has already danced at powwows from Alberta to California. But as an enrolled Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes member who now lives in Spokane, he finds special meaning in this one.
“It lets me know what my tribe’s doing,” he said. “Just to know that the Arlee Celebration and the Tribe are trying to get the youth more involved, it's a really big thing.”
The Arlee Celebration’s final day is scheduled to run from 1 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Sunday. For more information, visit arleepowwow.com.