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Organizers preparing for annual Missoula youth powwow

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As the minutes ticked by Sunday afternoon, the pile of brightly colored fabrics in front of Valerie Bullen began to slowly transform into a gorgeous fancy shawl outfit.

As the metamorphosis took place, the Washington Middle School eighth-grader smiled with shy pride and wonderment as she progressed on making her own powwow outfit for the first time.

With each cut of fabric, each stitch at the sewing machine, her pink, green, blue and purple butterfly-themed vision became more real and put her one step closer to another long-held dream.

“I want to become a powwow princess, ” explained Bullen, who is Assiniboine. “I’ve always wanted to be one.”

This weekend at the Honoring Our Youth Pow Wow at Big Sky High School, Bullen will get her opportunity to compete for the honor.

The two-day event puts the spotlight on Native American students in Missoula County Public Schools, and attracts participants from around the region and Canada.

Organizers of the 12th annual powwow expect about 400 to 500 dancers and family members, said Gisele Forrest, a Native American communication specialists with MCPS.

Two princesses will be chosen at the powwow – the Little Miss, to represent elementary students, and Miss Honoring Youth Princess to represent the middle and high school students.

“We are going to pick someone who is responsible to be our public figure, to serve as a voice to other students about our powwow, and to help in all areas of the event,” Forrest said.

The title also comes with the job of serving your tribe and helping to educate people about Native American culture and customs, Bullen said.

Not only will she be judged while she dances like a butterfly in the Fancy Shawl competition –which she said is the best part – but Bullen explained she will have to give a public speech at the powwow and submit to the judges a personal essay about her life and why she wants to be a princess.

“I’m kind of nervous,” Bullen said. “But I really want this. I want to be a good influence on other little girls that might want to become a princess.”

On Sunday, Forrest, who is also Assiniboine, was mentoring Bullen on how to sew a fancy shawl outfit.

“Native women most always make a dress with the help of other women,” Forrest said. “I can’t imagine doing it alone.”

The powwow, Forrest said, was started to give Missoula’s Native American children an opportunity to celebrate their culture without have to travel far distances.

“We felt there needed to be more than one opportunity (the Kyi-Yo Pow Wow at the University of Montana),” she said.

Although the Honoring Our Youth Pow Wow is a relatively small event as powwows go, it costs more than $16,000 to put on.

As prices for renting the facilities continue to climb, the powwow committee will be forced to find more community sponsors to help fund the event, find a less-expensive venue or trim back the event.

“We have a lot of challenges,” Forrest said. “It’s already costing us twice as much this year to put on because of prices going up.”

Just as the powwow is a celebration of culture and heritage for Missoula’s Native American students, it is also an opportunity to celebrate student achievements, Forrest said.

“We have so much good news to celebrate, things like we have the highest graduation rate of Native American students in the state,” she said. “And in any given school we have 10 percent of our kids who are on honor roll.

“Our kids do all that, plus practice our Native ways at home.”

Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at

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