Julyamsh, the Largest Outdoor Pow Wow in the Pacific Northwest

Julyamsh, the Largest Outdoor Pow Wow in the Pacific Northwest

Jack McNeel

It’s billed as the largest outdoor pow wow in the northwest with over $145,000 in cash prizes. That’s Julyamsh, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s annual powwow held at the Greyhound Park near Post Falls, Idaho, along the banks of the Spokane River, which had its 15th celebration this past July 22-24.

Coeur d’Alene elder Cliff SiJohn provides the oration during the horse memorial ride before each grand entry telling of the history of the horse with the Coeur d’Alene people.

In conversation with Cliff SiJohn, tribal elder and historian, he said the last one in Post Falls before Julyamsh was about 1917. In the intervening years an annual Wha-la (meadowlark) Days Celebration was held on pow wow grounds near Plummer, primarily for tribal members.

Julyamsh took advantage of the Greyhound Park to provide traditional activities with a more modern facility. The huge building, where folks once sat to watch and gamble on dog races, now provides air conditioned comfort and grandstand seating for those wanting such a luxury.

Cliff explained the move. “Dave Matheson and his staff, and I happened to be on the staff, decided to have a very classy celebration to celebrate the good things that were happening to the tribe. He wanted to celebrate with the other tribes so Julyamsh was put on for other tribes to come and celebrate with the Coeur d’Alenes the good things that are happening to our people.” It’s apparent their desires have been successful as entrants from 24 states and Canadian provinces are present this year, from as far away as New York and Virginia.

A crowd favorite is the horse memorial ride, which precedes each of the four grand entries. The horses come over a small hill and around the back of the grandstand and enter the infield where dancing will later take place. Riders from several tribes, Warm Springs, Nez Perce, Colville, Wanapum, and Coeur d’Alene, follow single file, each in full regalia.

Cliff SiJohn takes the microphone to tell the history of the horse with the Coeur d’Alenes and the horrible slaughter of roughly 900 Indian horses by the U.S. Army in 1858 along the banks of the river only a couple miles from the site of Julyamsh. Cliff is an orator and his words are delivered slowly and with immense impact.

“Since time immemorial our people have been here in this country. My father would speak all the time of the time when he was a young boy and he would ride with his grandfather up into the mountains. The trails were deep with dust because of so many horses going up into the mountains. Families were going to pick huckleberries and stay in the mountains for two or three months for the staples for winter before they went to their homes.”

“This life I spoke of would come alive when we would sit there in the evening and listen to the fire crackling as he would tell us stories of long ago. But my grandmother, when she would sit there, old as she was, would remember the battles with the white man, the soldiers at Steptoe and at Horse Slaughter Camp. She was there and saw with her own eyes the things she would tell us, the heartbreak of us as a people.”

“We carry strong our tradition and our culture and we carry it with pride for this is what we are. We are the American Indian and we are alive and well in the year 2011.”

As the horses enter the arena Cliff cautions the audience to hold their applause and be quiet and reserved and to observe the beauty and natural being of the horse. “They will be blessing the circle with every hoof beat as they circle the dance arena,” he says. “The riders will be praying for their grandmothers and grandfathers and for the people who are not here this year to witness the ceremony of the horse.”

The majority of the audience forgoes the coolness and comfort inside the building, preferring to be closer to the dancers. Bleachers fill two sides of the dog track while grand entry and dance competitions utilize the infield grass within the track. Many dancers and their families set chairs up in front of the bleachers. An announcer’s stand sits high above the track and the numerous drum groups are situated below. Vendors set up behind the bleachers, adding to the number located inside the air conditioned building where many artists have booths. An art auction is held with profits going to Shriners Hospitals.

Corky Old Horn (Crow) and Tommy Christian (Assiniboine Sioux) share announcer’s duties, keeping events and dances organized and providing humor and excitement through the three days.

Mandaree is the host drum. Nikki Santos, a Coeur d’Alene and a direct descendent of Chief Spokane Garry, is head woman. Santino Aldrich, also Coeur d’Alene, is head man.

The arena becomes a sea of color as over 600 dancers join the grand entry with the Greyhound Park building behind where viewers can watch in air conditioned comfort if they desire and where artists have booths.

Over 600 dancers join the grand entry filling the infield grass with the bright colorful regalia of the fast and fancy dancers, the more subdued colors of traditional dancers, some wearing regalia passed down through several generations, and the sounds associated with jingle dresses and bells.

The biggest outdoor pow wow in the Pacific Northwest is an event in every sense of the word.

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