As long as there have been Native Americans in the Inland Northwest, summertime has been powwow season. Though the times have changed a lot, the heart and spirit of the powwow is still the same.
"It's about our children and teaching them respect for our elders -- something that goes on every day, but is very central to our culture -- and about our families, and celebrating as a community," says Cliff SiJohn, director of this weekend's Julyamsh powwow at the Greyhound Track in Post Falls. "The Coeur d'Alene Tribe has always been putting this on. It's free, there is no charge for little kids or old people or anyone; it's something we give."
The Julyamsh tradition began in the early-1800s, when the tribe, then known as the Schitsu'umsh, would gather with the white fur traders of the area and celebrate America's independence. They decided to name this festival with a borrowed English word -- July -- and the Schitsu'umsh word for joining -- amsh. Julyamsh was celebrated until the early-1900s, when the powwow continued but the name vanished.
In 1998, Julyamsh was revived and has since become among the largest powwows in North America, with 100,000 people expected to attend this weekend's event.
"This year we have some native Hawaiian people coming. They won't be doing the hula or other touristy stuff; they'll be doing spiritual dancing," says SiJohn. "Last year we had 876 dancers and another 300 that weren't even registered, so we'll have more than 1,000 dancers easily. They come from as far as Florida -- we had Seminole dancers last year -- and all across the nation and from Canada."
Julyamsh is especially famous for its large dance and drum contests, and this year there will also be a lot of horses. Not only do the horses enter the grand arena half an hour before every grand entry, but on Saturday there will be an Indian Horse Parade at the Factory Outlets in Post Falls at 10 am.
"There are two grand entries. The first is Friday night with the horses coming in at 6:30 and the dancers at 7 pm," says SiJohn. The other grand entries are on Saturday at 7 pm and on Sunday beginning at 12:30 pm.
"During the dinner break from 5-7 pm on Saturday, we have our Indian art auction," says SiJohn, "and there is a huge vendor program every day, from Friday afternoon and on. We won't have any 'Made in Hong Kong' stuff there, but there will be jewelry and arts and crafts -- all of it Indian made."
He says there is no need to feel like you are intruding if you are a non-Indian spectator.
"I think some non-Indian people who come are inhibited, possibly because they want to be respectful yet they don't know what to believe in," he explains. "Maybe people shouldn't go expecting to believe in Indian beliefs, but they should rather go to the powwow and expect to respect Indian beliefs instead. They should go with open hearts."
Aside from the arts and the crafts, there will be many food stands and other exhibits to enjoy, conversations to be had and people to meet.
"I think the cultural exchange between the people is the most significant thing to be had from a powwow," says SiJohn. "It's what each person takes home from the powwow, whether it's having a good time or experiencing the spiritual movement and finding a place of balance in their lives, finding the center -- that's what it's all about."
He says he's concerned about the negative image North Idaho has in other parts of the country. Hopefully, Julyamsh can help correct the skewed idea that North Idaho consists mainly of neo-Nazis. "I hope for Non-Indian and Indian people to gather here at the powwow and celebrate that there are good people in North Idaho," says SiJohn. "I hope people will come and not just be a spectator but a participant at heart. There is so much good to be celebrated here."
Then he laughs: "All I'm saying is for people to come early. Don't expect a 20-minute drive and then five minutes to park. There's going to be a lot of people here, so give it plenty of time."
Several other Native American tribes are also planning powwows this summer.
Over the weekend of August 24-26, the Spokane Tribe is organizing a powwow at Riverfront Park.
"It's a coming together just to celebrate the Indian way of life," says John Gunther, a spokesman for the event.
Tribes gather from Kalispell, Spokane, Colville and Coeur d'Alene for this powwow, which also has evolved over time.
"It's changed over the years," said Gunther. "Jingle dress came out in the 1940s. But it's been going on forever, really. The way we honor the Creator is timeless."
At Riverfront Park, dancing and drumming are at the center of events as well -- but don't expect to see a horse parade. Still, there will be vendors selling Native American foods, including the ever-popular fry bread, and Native American arts and crafts.
The highlight for Gunther, however, is the Grand Entry. "You will see thousands of people in the Lilac Bowl, all watching," he says. "All of the dancers come out together with a drum playing. It's a huge event, and everybody's welcome and encouraged to come out."
Labor Day weekend is also a big weekend for the Spokane Tribe. The 87th Annual Spokane Tribal Labor Day Celebration is in Wellpinit, Wash., with activities enough to last from August 30 through September 3.
Wanda Abrahamson, administrative secretary for the Spokane Tribe, says the festivities kick off with a campus night to select the powwow's royalty.
"Dancing and everything else starts Friday, and we go to Monday evening or early Tuesday," she says. "Saturday we start the drum contest that will go on through the whole weekend."
Once again, visitors can expect to see dancers of all ages and styles, drum contests and vendors selling food, earrings, blankets and coats -- and there are slot machines and gambling.
Abrahamson also adds that people from all over the world attend this powwow. She has heard of visitors from Arkansas, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Wisconsin. Some are even from as far away as Germany and England.
For Abrahamson, the highlight of this powwow is the many different styles of dancing that range from fancy, jingle, grass and traditional, with groups of all ages.
Does she have a favorite dance event? "No," she says, "I can't choose which one, because they are all special."
Julyamsh begins Friday, July 27, at 3 pm and continues through Sunday. Grand entries are on July 27 at 6:30 pm, July 28 at 12:30 pm and 7 pm and on July 29 at 12:30 pm. The horse parade is on Saturday, July 28, at 10 am, and the Indian Art Auction is also on July 28 from 5-7 pm. Tickets are free, but there is a $5 parking charge. Commemorative programs may be purchased for $2. Call: 1-800-523-2464.