For centuries, the native peoples of the Inland Northwest – the Coeur d’Alene, Spokane, Pend Oreille, Palouse and Flathead tribes – gathered to share food, build friendships, trade goods, dance, drum and sing.
Surrounded by ceremony, Julyamsh, a three-day powwow hosted by the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, is a continuation of that custom. It’s a celebration of American Indian heritage, song, dance and spirituality, and a tribute to their ancestors, their sacrifices and the wisdom they’ve passed down.
“It’s kind of representing your tribe and representing your culture,” said Yvette Matt, co-chairwoman of the Julyamsh committee. “It’s like you’re giving back. You’re honoring your tribe and your ancestors who have done this before for you so you can do it yourself.”
More than 600 dancers competed at the powwow, which draws people from all over the country, for thousands of dollars in cash prizes. The regalia worn is colorful and intricate, painstakingly created by the dancers, with some pieces passed down through generations. The dancers moved rhythmically to beats created by a number of drum groups, their feet moving like metronomes to the pulsing percussion that represents the heartbeat of Mother Earth.
“It’s important because it kind of defines who they are as an Indian,” said Bobbie White, co-chairwoman of the Julyamsh committee.
But they didn’t just dance to the music; they created music as they danced.
Depending on what type of dance they were doing, women wore metal cones on their dresses that chimed together and reflected sunlight as they moved, or dresses of buckskin decorated with shells or bone, ornate beaded capes, or embroidered fringe shawls. Many men wore bells around their feet that jingled with each step, elaborate headdresses, eagle feather bustles, or long ribbons flowing like prairie grass.
The dancers’ outfits display a symbol – sometimes a flower, animal or geometric shape – many of which are a family heirloom and serve as a family crest.
“I am honored to wear short fringe buckskin dresses that were made by the hands of my great-grandmother and my grandmother,” Julyamsh Head Woman Nikki Santos wrote in the official program. “They both have passed before I was born, but the red birds on my beadwork serve as a family crest. I know when I move my feet, they are with me.”
Before the dancing began, a solemn horse parade took place to honor hundreds of horses killed by the U.S. Army on the banks of the Spokane River in September 1885. The revered horses have been necessary for survival and an integral part of the American Indians’ lives for “time immemorial,” said Cliff SiJohn, an elder in the Coeur d’Alene Tribe.
“The power of the animal spirit is with us today,” SiJohn said. “Hard times and we are still here because of the horse. He gave his life for us so no more Indians would have to die.”
After the parade, spectators stood and removed their hats as the honored eagle staff was brought into the sacred dance area, followed by the grand entry, a dance traditionally done to celebrate warriors’ safe return. Finally, a prayer was said to bless the dancers, the drummers, the emcees and all the attendees of the powwow.
“We’re having a celebration and giving, sharing with the people,” White said. “Having an opportunity to showcase our hospitality is amazing. It’s an opportunity to share with the people what we have and what we know.”
Though the powwow is a chance to compete, connect with old friends and make new ones, it’s also a time to share knowledge with the youth.
“We’re passing them on to our kids, grandkids,” White said. “People are just really focused on passing their traditions down.”