Quanah Matheson was watching rodeo at the Kootenai County Fairgrounds last year when he realized the arena would be a great spot for Julyamsh, the largest outdoor powwow in the Northwest.
The Coeur d’Alene Tribe canceled the annual celebration last summer after fighting the introduction of instant racing gaming machines at the longtime home of Julyamsh at the Greyhound Park and Event Center in Post Falls.
The Idaho Legislature in 2015 outlawed the machines, which were pulled from the Greyhound facility. Still, the relationship had soured between the tribe and Greyhound management, and tribal leaders moved on.
After a two-year absence, the dancing, drumming, singing and ornate regalia of Julyamsh will return next week at the county’s 83-acre fairgrounds on Government Way in Coeur d’Alene.
“For me, and I’m sure for a lot of elders and people in our tribe, this is going to be a historic moment for us, coming back to our capital and having our biggest powwow here,” said Matheson, the tribe’s cultural affairs director and a powwow master of ceremonies.
The city’s lakefront area, including present-day City Park and the North Idaho College campus, long served as an important gathering place for celebrations and major decisions by the tribe’s chiefs. That’s why moving the powwow to Coeur d’Alene feels like a homecoming, Matheson said.
“We’re more than happy to be here,” he said.
Julyamsh adds another major event to the summer schedule at the fairgrounds, along with the North Idaho State Fair, Aug. 24-28.
“It’s a privilege for us to have such an incredible cultural event here in North Idaho and at the fairgrounds,” said Dane Dugan, general manager of the fairgrounds.
When Matheson first met with fairgrounds managers about hosting the powwow there, he learned the facility was booked from spring to fall, except for one weekend. That just happened to be the traditional dates for Julyamsh.
“It’s actually kind of rare that we even have an open weekend, so it really was destined to be, I think,” Dugan said. “We’re very excited and expecting a lot of people.”
Matheson praised Dugan for making the tribe feel welcome. “His ears are open, you know,” he said.
The fairgrounds offers ample space for vendors indoors and out, room to board horses and RV hookups for the many participants who camp on-site. It also has over 6,000 parking spaces.
The fairgrounds is finishing a major remodel of the arena clubhouse, which was severely damaged in November’s windstorm. It has a new roof, walls and floor, Dugan said.
Members of hundreds of tribes from across the continent attend Julyamsh, a celebration, social gathering and friendly dance competition framed by ceremonial and traditional beliefs and teachings. As many as 800 dancers and 60 drum groups have taken part in previous powwows.
The weekend draws thousands of spectators from around the region.
“Everybody is more than welcome to come,” Matheson said. “We share our lands now, we’re neighbors together, we just want to celebrate together, we want to leave a good feeling here. That’s what that powwow is about, coming together and celebrating.”
The main attractions – the horse parade, grand entry and dancing contests – will be in the rodeo arena with teepees in the backdrop. The dirt will be compacted and rolled flat, as is done for concerts there, and artificial turf laid down to protect the regalia from dust.
The emcees help explain the events for newcomers, Matheson said.
“They’re going to experience dance styles from all the way back east, down south, the Plains, Canada,” he said. “Some of the songs, they come from all over. Even though the visitor may not be able to discern it, they’re actually witnessing different indigenous people from all over.”
The events include both somber and light moments.
“We make sure we pray, make sure we honor our veterans, our elders and children,” Matheson said. “After that, we really try to joke and have fun and bring good stories to the arena.”
Julyamsh also features art and crafts booths, memorabilia sales and food vendors. Indian tacos and fry bread are among the crowd favorites.
The Coeur d’Alene Tribe is interested in one day building its own powwow grounds on the reservation south of Coeur d’Alene, but that may not happen for years, Matheson said.
“Hopefully, we can have it here for many more years,” he said during a walk of the fairgrounds.
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