Eye-popping colors swirled and drums reverberated throughout Dahlberg Arena.
Thousands came to the 48th annual Kyiyo Pow Wow at the University of Montana on Friday and Saturday.
A group of UM Native American students formed a Native American Club in the 1950s, and the powwow was formalized in the 1960s. A Blackfeet tribal elder blessed the club, naming it "Kyiyo" – the Blackfoot word for bear – to mesh with the UM Griz.
It was originally called the Kyi-Yo Club. Last year, the Sacred Roots Language Society on campus asked that the hyphen be removed to help people more easily pronounce the word (it actually starts with a hard "G," said Kyiyo Club president Amber Shaffer).
"When it first started it was on a dirt floor and just a small group of students," Shaffer said of the club's annual powwow. "Now we have about 5,000 people attend."
By Friday night, staff had counted 400 dancers and 130 singers on the arena floor.
Kyiyo is the largest student-run powwow in the country, and one of the oldest. The massive event is headed up by a team of 12 students.
And it isn't cheap. Shaffer said the event as a whole cost about $60,000 this year, which is why they have to charge admission – not in line with tradition. But that money goes toward prizes for the next year's powwow.
The event also gets a donation from UM's President's Office, which covers the Adams Center fees. In between there's a lot of fundraising, including selling Native Griz T-shirts and sweatshirts. They're hoping to roll out a new design this fall.
"It's a gathering of friends and family, and meeting new friends," Shaffer said. "There's definitely a sense of community."
It unofficially marks the beginning of powwow season.
"I think a lot of people focus too much on the prize money," Shaffer said of misconceptions about the powwow. "What we're bringing to Missoula is being able to share our culture with this community. Going into our 50th ... for any student group to be able to maintain an event this size for that long is really impressive."
Involving more of the community has been the club's focus for the past few years, she said. One of those efforts is giving Missoula County Public Schools fourth-graders free admission since they're learning about powwows in music class.
"There are so many people that have lived in Missoula their whole lives, and have never been to the powwow," she said. "We have a really unique opportunity here in Montana to have access to this kind of event and just having so many reservations in Montana ... we hope that as many people can experience this and see what it's all about, and learn a little bit more."
There are 700 self-identified Native students at UM, 13 percent of whom are graduate students and 15 percent of whom are Missoula College students.
"This is just one way ... that we help create diversity within the University of Montana community," said Kyiyo Club co-advisor Wilena Old Person. "It shows we have that support with Dr. (Teresa) Branch and President (Royce) Engstrom, they were here last night, and the fact that they really support this is huge in terms of diversity within our campus."
Ties across generations and tribes – particularly Blackfeet – have kept the Kyiyo Pow Wow going strong for nearly half a century, Old Person said. Honorary MC Chief Earl Old Person has been to almost every single Kyiyo Pow Wow.
There's a large Blackfeet representation on campus, which Shaffer said surprised her family since the Salish are much closer.
"I think part of it is they do have their own community college, but that connection of generation after generation we're seeing now of Blackfeet families coming and graduating (UM) and then their kids wanting to do the same," Shaffer said.
The Kyiyo Native American Student Association is small, but its members work hard. Native American UM alumni often return to their reservations, Shaffer said.
UM is unique in its university support for Native students, Old Person said.
She grew up in Missoula, going to the Kyiyo Pow Wow as a young girl. The experience stuck with her – especially when she got to meet actress and model Andie MacDowell, she said – and she eventually became a student at UM and is now a Kyiyo Club co-adviser.
In that sense, the powwow acts as a recruitment effort, and helps with retention. There's no official UM recruiting done at the event, but that connection felt at the celebration shows Native students they have a community at UM, Old Person said.