When the largest outdoor powwow in the Northwest begins tonight in Post Falls, participants will feel the absence of two substantial figures of the annual gathering.
Clifford SiJohn, a Coeur d’Alene Tribe elder and storyteller who helped keep tribal customs and culture alive, died last Christmas Eve at age 67. His cousin, Spokane Tribe member and nationally known artist George Flett, died Jan. 30 at age 66.
SiJohn and Flett were closely involved in presenting Julyamsh, the three-day powwow hosted by the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. It runs through Sunday at Greyhound Park on the west end of Post Falls.
SiJohn would emcee the horse parade, introducing it with a retelling of the U.S. Army’s vindictive slaughter of more than 800 horses belonging to American Indians on the banks of the Spokane River in September 1858.
Flett, a versatile artist best known for his traditional ledger painting, helped organize the art show portion of the powwow and was a featured artist several times.
“They really knew what they were doing,” said Francis “Frenchy” SiJohn, Cliff SiJohn’s son. “They knew how to present the tribal culture through art, through oral history, and they both had deep-rooted traditional values of the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene people.”
The passing of the two men leaves a big void, but others are stepping up to assume new responsibilities, said Frenchy SiJohn, who is organizing the Julyamsh horse parade contest this year. He said his father endeavored to prepare a new generation to rise to leadership roles.
“He would always say, ‘The day that I’m gone, I want all you young people to pick up and carry on.’ And so he empowered a lot of the young people,” SiJohn said.
Organizers are paying tribute to both men at this weekend’s powwow. Flett’s artwork, which has been displayed in galleries across the West, is featured on the cover of the event program. Saturday at 9 p.m., a Horse Tail – an older-style dance with regalia resembling horses – will be held in memory of SiJohn.
“That was one of Cliff’s favorites that he was trying to re-establish,” powwow chairwoman Yvette Matt said. “He was trying to bring it back and have it be more common again.”
Horse Tail participants will receive a T-shirt honoring SiJohn, and members of his family will judge the dancers. First prize is $500.
The Spokane Tribe also plans to honor Flett at the 99th annual Labor Day Powwow in Wellpinit, Wash., Aug. 29-Sept. 2. The Prairie Chicken Special dance that Flett had sponsored will continue in his name.
Now in its 18th year, Julyamsh honors Indian culture with dances, songs, games and spirituality. It is sponsored by the Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort.
Each day of the powwow includes a horse parade contest and grand entry of dancers. An art show and auction will be Saturday afternoon, followed by a skydiving performance.
Around 800 dancers dressed in traditional regalia, accompanied by 55 drum groups, are expected to participate from tribes across the U.S. and Canada. The dancing and drumming takes place on the infield of the former dog track. Competitions pay up to $15,000 for the best drum group and $2,000 for the best adult dancer.
Antoine Edward Jr. and Butchie Eastman, two young Midwestern hand drum singers who have a gained a following on YouTube with videos that blend traditional and contemporary sounds, will appear each day of the powwow.
Art exhibits and sales are held in the Greyhound Park Pavilion.
Attendance over the weekend is expected to exceed 30,000.