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Joe Sam Scabbyrobe, a Blackfeet grass and chicken dancer from Browning, secures his tent Tuesday in the blustery weather at the Arlee powwow grounds before Wednesday’s start of the annual five-day gathering.

ARLEE – It’s still a celebration, not a powwow, but even that term hasn't quite cut it with the Salish and Pend d’Oreille who put on the annual five-day gathering here.

So the 117th that begins Wednesday is officially the “Arlee Esyapqeyni” – meaning “a celebration, a gathering of people,” chairman Willie Stevens said.

It’ll twist a few tongues, especially those of the non-Native visitors who flood to Arlee each extended Fourth of July to experience the color and culture of what is still informally and mistakenly referred to as the Arlee Powwow.

“A lot of people have that powwow word stuck in their heads, but it’s not really a powwow,” Stevens said.

In the old days, “powwow” referred to a gathering of warriors going to war.

“We’re not doing that,” Stevens said. “We’re there to celebrate with visitors and families coming together, reacquainting with old friends and making new friends.”

Tribes around the nation are moving toward names in their traditional languages.

“That’s our direction,” Stevens said, adding that this year “celebration” is “down lower in parentheses.”

“Probably next year we won’t even have it there,” he said.

One of the hottest drum groups on the continent is coming from North Dakota, and a Friday afternoon “People of Vision” special will commemorate the pending September acquisition of Kerr Dam by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

The latter, set for 3:30 p.m., figures to include mention of the tribes’ new name for the dam, which will be formally announced earlier in the day at the tribes’ quarterly meeting in Pablo.

First day activities on Wednesday are highlighted at 7 p.m. by a memorial procession that honors those of the host tribes who’ve died since last year’s event.

Dance competition begins Friday and peaks Saturday with grand entries at 7 p.m. each evening. There are 22 dance contest categories and another 10 or so dance and singing specials, from the “Bringing Out” Tiny Tots dance led by Jan Gardipe to Kenny McClure’s “Golden Age Men” dance for males 60 and older.

“I’m 38 years old and I’m still learning so many things about who we are as a people,” said Chaney Bell, language coordinator for the Salish-Pend d’Oreille tribes and secretary of Esyapqeyni. “Trying to put (the 117th) in perspective is tough. There’s just been so many changes from then until now.”

The challenge for the committee has been to continue to grow the popular Arlee event, which attracts drummers, dancers and visitors from across the West and Canada, while retaining connections to the host tribes’ past.

“There are people in our community who want to go all the way and make it a big powwow. Others say slow down, we need to remember our traditions,” Bell said.

Young Bear of Mandaree, North Dakota, will be host drum. The group has captured the Northern World Class Championship title at two of the last three Gathering of Nations Powwows in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

“I can’t remember the last time we brought in an outside host,” Bell said.

First prize in the drum contest was raised from $8,000 to $10,000, which catches the eyes of singers, drummers and visitors from a lot of places, Bell said.

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In striving to maintain the balance of old ways and new, there’ll be four local MCs – David Durgeloh, Stephen Smallsalmon, Jordan Stasso and Bill Swaney. This year, there are also two local honor drums, Yamncut (Salish) and Chief Cliff (Kootenai).

Heat or not, there’ll be a record 50 vendors this year selling food, jewelry, clothing and Native American art. That’s seven or eight more than in past years, said Tom McClure, who’s in charge of such things.

The number doesn’t include 15 or 20 nonprofit organizations with interests ranging from a Science Learning Tent from the University of Montana’s spectrUM Discovery Area and SciNation to wellness booths, including one where you can apply for a free mammogram.

The acquisition of Kerr Dam, set for Sept. 5, is “a history-making thing,” Stevens said. The People of Vision Special set for Friday in Arlee will be seconded in Elmo at the Standing Arrow celebration in two weeks and culminate at a community celebration in Pablo at Salish Kootenai College on Sept. 5.

CSKT and Polson-based Energy Keepers Inc. will supply a dinner with traditional foods. Tribal councils and members past and present will be among those noted at the presentation that will feature addresses by CSKT Chairman Vernon Finley and Brian Lipscomb, president and CEO of Energy Keepers, and a history of the dam acquisition process by tribal attorney Dan Decker.

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Mineral County, Veterans Issues Reporter

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian