Dancing in the Valley of the Flowers

It’s called the Gallatin Valley today, but long before the reckless and short-lived Bozeman trail passed through on its way to the mines, this place was given a different name. Fittingly, the original name for the the area is the Valley of the Flowers. Before European contact, the regional Native American tribes had long recognized this place as a rich and beautiful area for people to live and gather. For hundreds, and in some cases thousands of years, tribes have been meeting in the Bozeman area to celebrate.


Many tribes in what is today known as Montana were nomadic or semi-nomadic. Typically, they followed the buffalo across vast areas, passing through the valley on their seasonal journeys. The Assiniboine, Shoshone, Nez Perce, Blackfeet, Flathead and Sioux all traveled through the Valley of the Flowers, an area largely accepted as Apsaalooke (Crow) territory. Contrary to many anthropologists’ beliefs, centuries of political turmoil and shifting federal policy has not destroyed native peoples or their cultures. Montana is home to seven reservations, eleven federally recognized tribes, and one state recognized tribe, each with distinct cultures and histories. Each tribe has a government and constitution, and all but one has reserved land under federal treaty.


Two weekends ago, Bozeman was blessed with a reminder of the valley’s legacy as the tribes continued their tradition of gathering here. The 39th annual MSU American Indian Council Powwow was held on Friday and Saturday, April 11th and 12th. The Powwow is a time filled with competition, community and fry bread as dancers, drummers, vendors, and onlookers fill the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse in a flurry of color and energy. Whether you prefer the elaborate men’s fancy dances, the women’s shawl dances or the tiny tots, there was something for everyone there.


As one might imagine, putting on such an event is no small task. It is the largest free university-sponsored powwow in the U.S. and is run largely by students. Lisa Perry, one of the organizers of the event, said there were 392 dancers this year, with anywhere between 20 and 25 tribes involved. People attend by the thousands, not only from Montana, but also from surrounding states.


With the help of individuals like Perry, students organize the entire event, as well as volunteer throughout it. This allows it to remain free and open to the public. The fact that the powwow is free is “something our students take pride in,” Perry shares. “ You can spend money at the venders or get yourself an Indian taco, but you can also go and not spend a cent.”


It’s no secret that in Montana we aren’t exposed to a lot of diversity. Native people are the largest minority group in the state and, though times have changed since early settlement days, tensions remain. It was but a generation ago that my own friends and family were refused service due to their race, plainly evidenced by signs reading “No Indians or Dogs Allowed” hung from storefront windows. It would be naive to say this mentality is has evaporated within our own generation.


By treaty, tribes have reserved water, hunting, fishing and mineral rights, sometimes outside of the current reservation boundaries. As tribes grow more knowledgeable in the areas of Western government, education and mineral production, they are more able to execute negotiations as the sovereign nations they are. This results in long-unused treaty rights being utilized. Understandably, this creates conflict in many rural Montana communities where concepts of private property rights may clash with a tribe’s right to hunt and fish in that area. Similarly, the tribes have a right to enough water to serve their reservation for it’s intended use, which often trumps farmers’ water rights. Discrimination in voting policies, public schools, and social settings is a reality for Native people throughout the state.


Understanding this, the MSU powwow serves an important role. While it is primarily a place for tribes and families to gather in community, its impact on the broader Bozeman community is notable. In a state, and country, where much of the public still deeply misunderstands the legal status of tribes and what that means in modern times, the powwow is a bridge between cultures. Non-native attendees are able to observe the sheer number of dancers and native people which, for some, may come a surprise. The exposure to art, books, and food from different tribes can help people better understand the history of Montana in its entirety. The conversations shared at such an event can be transformative in how both Native and non-Native people view each other.


By no means is the event able to teach the complexity of the many tribe’s histories and cultures, nor can an attendee brag they now understand Native people. It is not a show put on for education or entertainment. That noted, it is a stepping stone for cross-cultural communication that, in less festive venues, may turn hostile. As a university that serves many Native and non-Native students, we are educating our future politicians, policy makers, scientists and leaders. By exposing all students to the process of cultural sharing we will be better prepared for our futures, wherever they may take us.


On top of the powwow’s significance in the community, it is a fun, free and exciting way for all attendees begin working through race barriers that span centuries. Through art, song, dance and deep laughter, people are able to learn and create bonds at this event. Undoubtedly, this makes it one of the most important events MSU holds and, as it approaches its fortieth year, it seems like it’s here to stay.