ARLEE — You might pass the Dancing Boy a hundred times without seeing him.
Maybe a Séliš-Ql̓ispé elder, say, Stephen Smallsalmon, finally points out the oh-so-obvious figure, half a mountain tall, on the south end of the Jocko Valley.
Some say he’s just a talus slope formed by fire or avalanche, but don’t believe it.
The Dancing Boy, in his regalia of bells and bustles, moccasins and beaded headband, is alive as you and me. He’s clearly a fancy dancer, which means high energy, intensity, butterfly-like joy.
What’s he dancing for? It changes all the time.
The valley below has been home to a July powwow/celebration continuously since 1898 — 121 years of drumming, singing, dancing, stick games, vending and tepee camping under the Boy’s ecstatic eye. He’s been fancy dancing since before fancy dancing was introduced to intertribal powwow circuits in the Depression years.
Tribal cultural leaders say there are no Coyote trickster stories, no creation legends, no spiritual significance attached to the Dancing Boy. Yet he’s embedded in the culture of these valleys and people.
His figure adorned a 1998 commemorative celebration blanket commissioned by the Peoples Center in Pablo.
There’s a Dancing Boy Lane and a Dancing Boy Farm co-op on the valley floor.
A Salish camp is depicted on a panel of the Eagle Circle Veterans Wall of Remembrance at the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes headquarters in Pablo. In the background are McDonald and Gray Wolf peaks, the Mission Mountains Garden Wall and Dancing Boy Mountain.
You spot the Dancing Boy when you round the corner on Highway 93 from Ravalli and break into the broad Jocko Valley. He reigns in the distance over Schall Flats — "Nululmeys" to the Salish and Pend d’Oreille.
Frame our Boy between any two of the Eight Great Stupas that mark the major events in the Buddha’s life, maybe the Enlightenment Stupa and the Stupa of the Turning of the Wheel of Dharma. They line the walk to the Garden of 1,000 Buddhas north of town. An interpretive sign explains that stupas “represent the enlightened mind present in all sentient beings, and the shape itself is considered to bless and transform the mind of anyone who sees it.”
On a recent afternoon, a tractor and rake in the field behind the stupas churned new-mown hay into lush windrows.
And the Boy danced on.
He crop-hops over Nk̓ʷusm, the Salish immersion school on the outskirts of Arlee, and beyond the public schools in town where the Warrior Movement was born. In a remarkably short time teenage basketball players, their coaches and followers have spread their message of suicide awareness and prevention across the Flathead Reservation and the world.
At the proper angle, the Dancing Boy can be seen boogying beyond the Wilson Foods Conoco sign ($2.93.9 for Regular; ATM; Ice Cream By the Scoop).
Two slabs of granite stand upright outside the Arlee/Jocko Valley Museum at the corner of Fyant and Bouch streets. Surely our Dancer dances for the names on those rocks: World War II veterans Louis G. Charlo, brothers Roy and Vernon Christopher, William Connerly and Richard Davis, Donald and Frank Eldridge, Warren Gardipe, Clarence Marengo, Moiese McGowan, Thomas McMurtrie, Robert Pearson, Russell Rasmussen.
From Vietnam: William Fisher and Joseph Pokerjim.
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Each had his own story of joy and sadness, and the Dancing Boy honors them all.
His dance must not have been so fancy in 1891, on that October day when the last proud, humiliated Salish families arrived from their Bitterroot homeland at the old agency out in the valley.
Word had spread among those who’d made the exodus in previous years and, as the agent’s wife Mary Ronan described, “many of the Reservation Indians had gathered to give them welcome.”
Their leader was Chief Charlo, whose “countenance retained its habitual expression of stubborn pride and gloom, as he advanced on foot, shaking hands with all who had come to greet him,” Ronan wrote.
Louis Charlo, the name that alphabetically topped the list of World War II casualties back at the museum? He was a son of Antoine Charlo, who was son of Martin Charlo, who was son of Chief Charlo.
On Feb. 23, 1945, the famous chief’s great-grandson from Evaro was on a Marine reconnaissance team on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima. Under intense attack, he helped pioneer a path to the top of Mount Suribachi and raise a small American flag hours before the larger, more famous one photographed by Joe Rosenthal.
"Here was the first invaders' flag ever planted in four millennia on the territorial soil of Japan, and that … boy from Montana was helping to hold it upright," Missoula attorney Tracey Morin wrote in a tribute to Pvt. Charlo at the Arlee museum.
It prompted glad cheers from heartened U.S. troops fighting below for control of Suribachi’s slopes.
An eyewitness said as Marine photographer Louis Lowery snapped pictures of the flag-raising, enemy soldiers began emerging from caves, shooting and throwing grenades as another photographer took pictures.
“Charlie, the Indian, and his companion coolly picked them off,” Ray Coll Jr., wrote later.
A few days later, Charlo wrote his last letter home, from the base of Suribachi. He said he was well, and that his role in the capture of the mountain was “a bit part in the fracas.”
Back home, the Dancing Boy danced on.
On Friday, March 2, one week after the historic flag-raising, Louis Charlo was killed by a Japanese machine-gunner. He’s buried in the St. Ignatius Catholic Cemetery, out of sight of the Dancing Boy.
Charlo’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather lie in the cemetery behind the Jocko Mission Church on Agency Road, where the “Salish Trail of Tears” ended for Chief Charlo. Charlo died in 1910, the year the Flathead Reservation that had been promised to his people was opened to white settlement.
As you head southeast out of Arlee, Highway 93 and the Montana Rail Link tracks head straight at Dancing Boy Mountain, veering right after 2½ miles at Dirty Corner.
Up close, the Dancing Boy disintegrates, of course. Why should he reveal himself so intimately to you?
If you want to try, follow Mountain Home Lane to its extreme, then up a two-track until it bends out of line to the left. Hike the mountain half a mile and prepare to be disappointed.
Back down in the valley, look back. The Dancing Boy is up there hopping again, no doubt smiling at such temporal foolishness.