ARLEE – Standing in the heart of the busy Arlee Powwow grounds, Stephen Small Salmon smiled at the beauty that surrounded him.
The sky was bright, the sun cast a golden light and all around him dancers adorned in their tribal regalia joyfully waited together to begin the day’s dancing at the Fourth of July celebration.
“The importance of the Arlee Celebration is getting different Indian people back together,” said 73-year-old Small Salmon, who is Pend d’Oreille and a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
“We dance for our elders and our children, and for those who are fighting far away for the protection and safety of this beautiful land.”
This year, Small Salmon, along with Johnny Arlee, Eva Boyd and Madeline Isaac Finley are the powwow’s special honorees and will be celebrated for all their tribal wisdom and educational contributions in an honoring ceremony on Saturday.
As the drummers began to warm up and let the dancers know it was soon time to begin the Snake Dance, Small Salmon was pleased to see so many dressed in “old style.”
“It is important to remember our ways and to not forget,” said Small Salmon, who readied himself for the dance in his old-style buckskin regalia, adorned by a grizzly claw necklace, a badger-pelt arm drape and war bonnet.
Patricia McClure Buffalo took a deep breath and quietly prepared herself for her distinguished honor as the celebration’s head lady dancer.
Dancing is always an emotional experience, but it has been particularly so for the past several years, ever since Buffalo was urged by Virginia Brazil, a tribal elder, to make and bring back to the dance floor a rare, old-style Salish dress that few modern Salish had ever seen.
In her stunning red wool regalia decorated with a swathe of sacred seashells and thousands of glass beads that were sewn across the garment like a shawl, Buffalo explained she really had only one opportunity to view Brazil’s dress and had to commit the style to memory.
“The elder gave me a small box of shells to get started, she gave me the red Pendleton and teal ribbon and some thread,” Buffalo said. “But before I did one thing for the outfit, I prayed to the Creator and asked him to help with what the elder asked me to do. After that, everything was possible.”
Brazil lived long enough for her wish to come true, and every time Buffalo steps into the regalia she bears the mantle of history.
It’s a lovely mantle, one that is cloaked with traditions, responsibility and love.
“When I wear this, when I’m dancing, it’s the place where I let go of everything that is hard,” Buffalo said, her eyes bright with emotion. “When I wear this and dance, I give back to Mother Earth and I thank her for all the life she has given.”
Buffalo shares in Small Salmon’s joy when he sees more and more dancers in old-style regalia.
For Buffalo, there’s an even more personal connection.
“My elder got her wish, she got to see an old-style Salish dress on the dance floor once again,” Buffalo said. “And after that, more dancers came out on the floor in the same style.”