Diego Hammett usually spends every weekend of the summer attending powwows with his family throughout Montana, but many powwows were canceled this year due to COVID-19, leading Hammett and others to find new ways to build community in the absence of regular cultural traditions.
On Saturday, Hammett, who is the head cross country coach at Sentinel High School, brought his team to participate in a 5K run and walk at Ogren-Allegiance Park that kicked off a daylong Indigenous Celebration event.
"A lot of people go to powwows, and there were no powwows this summer, so it's just kind of a community event for the local Natives here to bring them together," Hammett said. "I think it was very important since there were no celebrations this summer."
The Indigenous Celebration, put on by the All Nations Health Center (formerly the Missoula Urban Indian Health Center) and the Missoula PaddleHeads baseball team, also included a talent show at night. The event, which is in its second year, was started after the new owners of the PaddleHeads reached out to the All Nations Health Center to ask if they could hold an Indigenous Celebration Night as a way to engage the community.
D'Shane Barnett, executive director of the All Nations Health Center, said he also hopes the event can play a part in building the relationship between Native Americans and non-Natives in Missoula as he cheered runners on past the finish line with a megaphone.
"It gives Native folks in Missoula a chance to have a sense of pride in our community," Barnett said. "And it shows the non-Native community of Missoula that we are here, that we are healthy, that we are strong, that we're a vibrant community."
A lot has changed since last year's event. Both organizers changed their names, a global pandemic has affected people across the world, and nationwide protests have sustained efforts to eliminate racial injustice.
Although Native organizations have worked hard to build positive relationships with non-Native community partners and allies in Missoula, Barnett said there's still racism the Native community deals with on a daily basis.
In the weeks leading up to the event, a man formerly employed by a Missoula realty firm posted racist comments on the Facebook event page for the Indigenous Celebration Night. The All Nations Health Center responded in a Facebook post that they were "aware of and saddened by the racist comments," and that they contacted the realty firm to ask for "swift and appropriate resolution to this awful situation."
Barnett said the realty firm asked the man to resign, and he also gave up his real estate license for the state of Montana.
"That kind of stuff still happens," Barnett said. "That's still there but that's why we do this work, so that hopefully for the next generation, those kinds of attitudes are not there."
Brenda Solorzano, CEO of the Headwaters Foundation, also participated in the run with her daughter, Ali Caudle. Solorzano said she thinks the only way to overcome racism is to overcome the "us versus them" mentality by bringing communities together at events like the run.
"It's an opportunity to get to know a little bit about each other," she said. "At the end of the day, we're just all humans, and the more we can do in these community kind of events to learn about each other, the more we can realize we have a lot in common."
Solorzano said she sees Missoula as a welcoming community and hopes to see more non-Native people attend the event in the future.
"In this time of social unrest over racism in our country, coming out and supporting organizations that represent BIPOC and Indigenous people is an important thing for me to do," she said; BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous, People of Color. "One of the things that often happens is people forget that these lands belong to Native people ... and this is a way to elevate this community that has been here forever."
Mark Schuman and Paisley Miles also attended the event with their son and Native foster daughter, whom they are in the process of adopting.
"We're a white family raising a Native kid, so we think it's important to make sure we're keeping her immersed in cultural events," Miles said.
The couple said another family who attended the event is fostering their soon-to-be daughter's brother with plans to adopt him. Miles and Schuman said they want to keep the siblings in touch with each other and with their heritage, adding that the event was the first time the siblings were able to see each other in person during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Barnett said the organizers received some pushback for holding the event during the pandemic, although the Missoula PaddleHeads have successfully hosted events such as movie screenings over the last several weeks with 500 or more people in attendance. The event's organizers worked with the local health department to hold the event, where they required face masks, stationed volunteers to provide social distancing directions and enforcement, and sanitized seats.
"If we do things responsibly, we can still find ways to come together as a community," Barnett said.