ARLEE – It’s a safe bet most of the attendees at Saturday’s Arlee Celebration powwow learned something from at least one of the four elders honored on the dance floor that afternoon.
From hunting and decorative arts to tribal organization and the Salish language itself, this year’s honorees represented a huge slice of Flathead Indian Reservation culture and tradition. Eva Boyd, Madeline Isaac Finley, Johnny Arlee and Stephen Small Salmon all spent much of their long lives passing on their particular skills.
“We’re kind of running out of our elder elders,” said Celebration committee chairman Alec Quequesah. “So we’ve started doing two at a time, two men and two women, so we can honor them before they’re gone.”
Or as Arlee joked: “This is kind of a lesson to everybody – when you’re asked to go to a meeting, you better be there.” Arlee was a member of the celebration committee but was out of town when his colleagues decided to name him to this year’s group. “The next thing I know, I see my name on the poster.”
An Army veteran and educational consultant, Arlee helped revive many of the traditional Salish songs and activities he’d learned from his grandfather. He directed the Flathead Culture Committee for four years in the 1970s and published “Over a Century of Moving to the Drum” in 1998, a book of interviews about the Arlee Celebration’s multigenerational history.
The 95-degree heat prompted Boyd to forego her buckskin dress for a lighter, bright red cotton one. But she topped it with a woven cedar-strip hat of her own handiwork. Boyd has been Salish Kootenai College’s teacher of traditional weaving arts since 1981.
“Every quarter there’s another 20 students,” said Boyd, who recently returned from a Weavers Teaching Weavers conference in Washington where she caught up on coastal Salish basketry techniques.
Finley worked as a welder in Oregon during World War II, and was a firefighter until she was 55. All that time, she also was a prodigious hunter and angler, summiting many of the mountain peaks that ring the Flathead Reservation.
“I still go out hunting with my grandson when he goes in the fall,” Finley said. “And when he goes fishing too. I’ve taught a lot of people here to hunt and fish. That’s how I came to live so long – because I enjoy the mountains.”
Small Salmon outdid many of the 400 dancing entries with his own traditional dancing regalia, which included both deer-hoof jingles as well as modern ankle bells. He has taught Salish language classes at the Arlee Nkwusm School to hundreds of children over the past nine years.
In powwow tradition, the four honorees and their families gathered beforehand to prepare a give-away where they present gifts to the crowd that came to honor them. Arlee’s family-member drum group, Yamncut, played a gift-giving song while other relatives of all four families brought out blankets filled with presents. Offerings ranged from candy for children to coffee mugs, framed beadwork, Pendleton blankets and other artworks.
As the four honorees made a slow circle around the dance floor, hundreds of people came out to shake their hands and exchange greetings. Then the greeters formed a round-dance line behind the elders, and each new visitor greeted everyone in the line as it snaked around the floor to the gift-giving song. By the time the quartet made it back to the announcer’s podium, the train of well-wishers encircled the whole floor.
“Indians are known to give – they give all the time,” Arlee said. “My grandfather always told me never to admire something in someone else’s house, or before you leave they’ll give it to you. It made them happy for a while, and now it can make you happy.”