Protesters decry Missoula’s Festival of the Dead as disrespectful of indigenous culture

Missoula’s Festival of the Dead is celebrating its 25th year this month, amid concerns of cultural appropriation. (Poster design by Joanna Yardley)

Is Missoula’s month-long Festival of the Dead racist in its appropriation of another culture’s somber tradition?

A number of local residents believe so, and took their concerns to the Missoula City Council on Monday night.

They were also disheartened by the way they were taunted and threatened during a peaceful protest outside a Festival of the Dead event on Sunday night.

“I am here to ask you not to support the Festival of the Dead in any way and to issue a resolution condemning it,” said David Beck, who believes Missoula’s events show disrespect for indigenous belief systems of Central America and Mexico.

Ekoo Beck said she grew up in Missoula participating in the festival, but was shocked to see its cultural appropriation and what she called racism when she returned from Harvard University.

“Then I realized how wrong it was,” Beck said. “It becomes a racist situation.”

She worries that, if it continues, future generations of Missoula children will grow up seeing the festival as “just a part of the community” rather than a cultural appropriation and show of disrespect.

Rosalyn LaPier, who co-authored “City Indian” with David Beck detailing Indian activism in Chicago between 1893 and 1934, said October marks the start of a time each year when Native Americans feel most maligned – from the observance of Columbus Day to Halloween and Day of the Dead, to Thanksgiving.

“People are dressing up like Native Americans at all these events,” LaPier told council members. “Festival of the Dead is one of these places, with the face painting. Throughout the month, we have this constant disrespect for indigenous cultures.”

In Mexico and Central America, Day of the Dead is an indigenous ritual and intensely personal, family remembrance, she said. “What we have turned it into here is a big party.”

LaPier and Beck said they were alarmed by the behavior they encountered during a peaceful protest Sunday outside a Festival of the Dead event. LaPier said she was threatened by a man who came within inches of her face, accusing her of “invading” his and others’ space.

“It is our space,” she said. “Missoula is our space.”

Although neither the City Council nor Missoula sponsor the Festival of the Dead or its culminating downtown parade, those who testified during Monday night’s public comment found support among the elected officials.

Ward 3 Councilwoman Gwen Jones said her first exposure to Day of the Dead was in California, where the holiday was family-based and “a very traditional honoring of the dead” in the Hispanic community.

In Missoula, Jones said, “there is more of a Mardi Gras feel to it. So I can understand the concern here.”

Ward 4 Councilman Jon Wilkins scolded the festival participants who threatened protesters earlier this week.

“Shame on you,” he said. “I didn’t think Missoula was that kind of place.”

Ward 6 Councilwoman Marilyn Marler said she was embarrassed to have participated in Festival of the Dead events in the past, knowing now how they are perceived by indigenous people.

“I will not participate now and encourage others not to participate,” she said. “The festival has changed in the past 25 years.”

On Facebook, Festival of the Dead organizers acknowledged the concerns about cultural appropriation and said they are rethinking some of the events planned for this month.

“We hear concerns about cultural appropriation, and each year we have tried to make changes to stop perpetuating this problem,” organizers wrote. “We use your input to help the festival evolve. We realize that we still have a long way to go, and we invite the entire community to learn about appropriation with us together.”

“Because of the concerns voiced again this year, we are rethinking several elements of our 2017 schedule,” they said. “We are grateful for the dialogue that is happening. This is a time where racism is very present in all of our minds. We ask our broader community this year to, rather than painting faces in the manner of sugar skulls, stand in solidarity against racism and search your own cultural heritages for how you present yourself at this year’s Festival’s Procession.

“We can’t continue to stand behind a beloved festival designed to embrace change, if we are resistant to change and feedback ourselves. Let’s promote the importance of this dialogue by listening and acknowledging that we don’t always have the tools or experience to see what changes need to made.”