More than 150 years ago the Native American tribes of the area were robbed of their horses – a symbol of power and necessary for survival – by soldiers of the U.S. Army.
As many as 900 of the great beasts belonging to a Palouse chief were slaughtered on the banks of the Spokane River, near what is now the border between Washington and Idaho, on the orders of Col. George Wright.
Those two days of massacre in September 1858 left the tribes on foot, with winter closing in. It was a dark moment, in a time of war.
“We will never forget the sacrifices made by our ancestors,” said Cliff SiJohn, the cultural affairs director for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe.
Each year SiJohn uses the horrific historical account to introduce the horse parade that kicks off Julyamsh, the Coeur d’Alene Tribal Encampment and Powwow in Post Falls.
On Friday the tribal elder introduced three brothers from the Cayuse people of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in northeastern Oregon, who for the last eight years have guided the horse parade into the powwow arena.
Gary, Keith and Marvin Burke, of Pendleton, Ore., ride into the arena on horses wearing traditional war bonnets and colorful regalia handed down from their grandmother. The bonnets were worn during the Indian wars by tribal warriors.
“Our grandmother is one of the descendants of Chief Joseph,” said Judy Farrow, the Burkes’ sister. “But that’s another story.”
“It’s a glimpse of the past,” said Gary Burke, who rides with a cougar hide handed down from his father, Chief Raymond Burke. SiJohn asks the Burkes to attend Julyamsh each year, but often they don’t know what form SiJohn’s story will take, as it’s a little different each year.
“It’s a way for him to teach the rest of the world what he knows,” Gary Burke said. “I’m proud to be a part of it.”
The parade is a primer for the hundreds of dancers dressed in traditional regalia who take the grass for the Grand Entry. The dancers, with methodical steps beating the ground, and weaing bright colors, spin and twirl to the delight of spectators.
More than $140,000 in prize money is available for dancers, drummers and stick game participants over the course of the weekend.
But for many, the powwow is only about sharing their culture with the outside world. Members from nations across the country come to dance, share and renew their spirit.
The three-day event honors a century-old gathering of Northwest tribes along the Spokane River, in which the Coeur d’Alene, Spokane, Palouse, Pend Oreille and Flathead tribes would come together for trading and competition. It was called Julyamsh, combining the English word “July” with the native “amsh,” which means to sit and gather.
After 80 years of dormancy, the Coeur d’Alenes brought the gathering back 13 years ago, and each year it grows.
“We’re just here to say we are still alive, we’re still here and we’re proud that we can share,” SiJohn said.