The dance is a celebration of life, an homage to their ancestors and the preservation of a culture.
To the steady rhythm of drums, Juanita Ramirez waved a fan fashioned from eagle feathers as she moved in full regalia to the music she first heard as a child.
A full-blooded member of the Spokane Tribe, the 68-year-old learned how to dance from her parents and grandparents. It is a tradition she has passed down to her children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren – a custom she hopes will continue long after she’s gone.
“I feel like I’m on a cloud,” she said, describing the gentle movement of her feet upon the ground and the flutter she feels inside. “It’s such an emotional experience.”
At least 500 people came to the Northern Quest Casino Pavilion on Saturday for the 13th annual American Indian Friendship Dance. Young and old, Indians and non-Indians, they shared a meal of fry bread and other foods before gathering near the stage to watch the dancers.
The free event was a chance for people to reminisce with old friends and to teach non-Indians and the younger generation about the songs and dances of the area’s four Plateau Tribes: the Coeur d’Alenes, the Kalispels, the Colville Confederated Tribes and the Spokanes.
In his native Salish, a language that only a few speak fluently today, Francis Cullooyah of the Kalispel Tribe gave thanks to God as silence suddenly swept the entire pavilion.
“It is with joy and with hope that I give you this prayer, Grandfather, Creator,” he later repeated in English. “In hopes that when we leave here today, that our minds and hearts are clear, Grandfather, Creator, and we are happy.”
The Friendship Dance was established by several tribal elders including the late Robert Sherwood, a revered leader and one of the Spokane Tribe’s most diligent cultural preservationists. Shortly before his death in 2002, Sherwood asked Cullooyah and Gabby Corral of the Spokane Tribe to continue the tradition of bringing Indians and non-Indians together for the annual dance.
Every year, tribal members from all over the area and beyond attend this dance for the sake of fellowship, said Loren Swan, a Coeur d’Alene Indian. “We come with the openness and love that our Creator has for everyone,” he said.
Swan first learned to dance when he was 15 years old, as a student at the Fort Sill Indian School in Lawton, Okla. He made his own regalia from eagle feathers, rawhide and porcupine hair and started watching other Natives dance during powwows. Swan was a fancy dancer during his youth. Now 51, he creates and plays traditional wooden flutes.
Whenever Cullooyah dances, he closes his eyes so he can hear the different sounds around him – the beat of the drums, the peal of voices, the ringing of bells and the rustling of feathers.
“I think of the ones who have danced on this ground before me,” said Cullooyah, cultural program director of the Kalispel Tribe. “I also honor the people who have taught me in the past.”
Among the youngest dancers at the gathering were 3-year-old Joseph Abrahamson Jr. and his cousin, 18-month-old Sincere Gallardo. Both boys learned how to move their bodies to the rhythm of the drums thanks to their grandfather, Neal Abrahamson of the Spokane Tribe.
“My grandmother once told me that every time I dress up and dance, it gives her strength,” said Neal Abrahamson. “I teach these boys to remember her and so that the dances will live on.”
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