A whirlwind of dance, drums and traditional Indian wares, Julyamsh combines the grace of ballet, the atmosphere of carnival and the mercantilism of a grand bazaar.
It's certainly a spectacle, and the joy is infectious, but that only scratches the surface of the powwow's deep cultural importance for area tribes. For native peoples, powwows carry unimaginable significance. They have the historical value of the Smithsonian and the sacred grandeur of Easter Mass.
David Matheson is CEO of the tribe's gaming operations and a tribal folklorist. His Web site describes the event's vitality: "as each foot touches the good earth, it is an offering. As each stick strikes the drum, it is the heartbeat of Indian Country. Through uncounted millennia, the histories, cultures and traditions of American and Canadian Indian tribes continue to thrive. The powerful life of such things is celebrated at Julyamsh."
This weekend is the living history of a people intimately connected to the spirit and spirits of the land they inhabit. As such, each dance and song is sacred and pregnant with cultural and historical significance. The prairie chicken dance mimics the movements of the sacred tribal bird, gone from this area since the early 1900s. Though the birds are almost extinct, their natural range no longer approaching Coeur d'Alene lands, they remain in the collective memory of the people.
These dances are the stories that preserve the Coeur d'Alene way of life, but that doesn't mean they all speak to some distant past. According to Leanne SiJohn, director of this year's powwow, certain individual dances "follow the same presentation as an individual dancing in his own preparation and his own story and feeling of being a dancer in the way grandmother and grandfather taught us to think while we are "dancing." As each person learns to dance from his or her forbears, the dance becomes imbued with the learner's vitality and originality. The "most powerful" example of this, SiJohn says, is the sneak-up dance. "[It] offers the opportunity for individual warriors to exhibit their courage and spiritual presence in front of an enemy, whatever that may be," she says.
This weekend, everything you see will have the deliberateness of ceremony. Nothing is taken for granted; nothing is done for expediency's sake. Even the location is significant. Traditionally, gatherings in this area happened at the confluence of rivers, where tribes came to fish the salmon-heavy rivers and trade. The Greyhound Park's proximity to the Spokane River recalls these gatherings, the rivers, according to Matheson, "running black with salmon."
Several years ago, the tribe considered moving the event to the Spokane Fairgrounds for a variety of logistical reasons. In the end, however, the pull of the area around Greyhound Park was too strong.
Though you may not understand everything you see, it's impossible to miss the event's power. Another thing you might not realize is that, simply by sharing the experience, you become part of that power. SiJohn believes that each year non-Indians play a vital role in the continuation of the tribe and its beliefs. "Their support for the dancers and the young children are very important to encourage our children to practice their traditions and culture. Our friends who sit in the stands as spectators have the opportunity to experience a cultural exchange between two worlds with the final acceptance that the American Indian, the Coeur d'Alene Tribe, and other tribes are alive and well and living their culture," she says.
That's not a new thing, though, according to Matheson. The spirit of the powwow -- its roots stretching hundreds of years into the past -- is one of inclusivity. "As it was, it is today: all are welcome," he writes.
Drummers, horse riders and dancers compete in one of the nation's largest powwows all day on Friday-Sunday, July 22-24, at the Greyhound Park and Event Center, 5100 W. Riverbend Ave., west of Exit 2 off I-90 in Post Falls, Idaho.