Octave Finley, war dance chief of the Salish Tribe, escorted the veterans onto the gymnasium floor. He was one of them, having served in Korea and later Vietnam; he retired with over 20 years in the ranks under his belt. At his side was Dan Jackson, Commander of the Veteran Warrior Society on the Flathead Reservation. Together they led a serpentine path the length of the gym with other veterans following behind. Bill Rogers, a Choctaw who now lives on the Flathead Reservation was the rear guard, walking backward to watch behind.
The Veteran Warrior Society pow wow in Pablo, Montanta, has been going on for the past 16 years. “All these folks are here to celebrate Veterans Day,” Bill Rogers explained. “They aren’t here to compete in any sort of money making event. It’s just going to be friends getting together, talking, having a good time, and honoring veterans.”
The Warrior Society was formed in 1992. “They had been having trouble getting their benefits from VA and they wanted to assist their friends and neighbors in getting their benefits,” Rogers said. “Then it escalated to an honor guard for funerals and for the 4th of July pow wow. Then shortly after that we started having Veterans Day pow wows.”
Another member, Mike Couture, is a Desert Storm vet. “It wasn’t about just Native veterans but all veterans because our color guard performs ceremonies anywhere they’re asked,” he said.
Couture is a relative newcomer to the group, having retired from active duty with the Navy in 2009. He gave credit to Salish Kootenai College for its fine pow wow venue—the Joe McDonald Center, which offers a spacious gymnasium. “This pow wow has grown a lot through the years since its inception.”
This is not your average pow wow, Couture acknowledged; there are some differences that set it apart from the typical entries. But it remains at base a pow wow, with the requisite sights and sounds that make every such event special. “The Veterans pow wow is mainly focused on the veterans themselves,” Couture said. “It’s still a celebration in the same sense it has drumming and dancing but it’s more a time for honoring veterans.”
Ten drums were located around the edge of the gym floor, taking their turns as called upon. Francis Cullooyah was here again from the Kalispell Reservation in Washington to serve as emcee during the pow wow as he has done in the past. Pre-school youngsters fully dressed in regalia could be seen dancing with the teens, adults and elders during intertribals and round dances. Despite the familiar feel these components offered, the pow wow had a somewhat different vibe than those that offer typical competition dancing. The mood was just a little more relaxed, a little more casual
Which is not to say that there was no competition; a couple of contests offered titles that were derived from the names of the sponsors. A Ms. WalMart competition offered a single prize to female dancers of all ages and dancers of whatever style they chose. The same single-prize designation held true for a Mr. Les Schwab competition, which was held among male dancers of varying ages. Stormie Perdash won the Ms. Walmart title, while Darcey Anaquod was named Mr. Les Schwab. In the one-man hand drum competition, Willie Pierre prevailed.
There would be competition of another sort each of the two days of the pow wow, Bill Rogers promised; that competition would include interviews and dancing to select Little Miss and Young Warrior. “There’s not much of a prize that goes with it,” Rogers said, “but we think the kids like the warriors, we hope anyway, and feel proud to be our people.”
Perhaps the highlight was the honoring that takes place for all veterans who are present. “We bring them in behind the flags,” Rogers explained, indicating that all the veterans form a line that serpentines the length of the gym. “I’m rear guard so I bring up the tail end carrying an old coal burner [gun] so I dance backward to watch what’s coming up behind us. It’s simply to put these guys’ faces in the public eye one more time this year and remind people of the service these people did.”
As the lines of veterans stood before the podium, Cullooyah remarked, “Tonight we have to remember all those that we have lost, all the people, the fallen warriors, and the families who are left behind. They still grieve for those people that are gone, that they have lost.”
Following a moment of silence for prayer, Cullooyah approached each of the veterans and asked them to give their name, branch of service, and time in service. Each spoke briefly, then a drum came to life and the veterans were danced off the floor.
“It was a very successful pow wow,” summed up Commander Dan Jackson. “It brought the community together and brought more veterans together and that’s what we aim for.”