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Dead ahead: With the Festival of the Dead approaching, Missoula takes an uncomfortable look in the mirror

By Jason Begay, The Missoula Independent

October 26, 2017

Remember that time when Qwest, the regional telecommunications company that owned the 30-foot-high reflector panel on Waterworks Hill, threw up its hands and stopped trying to remove the hand-painted peace sign repeatedly tagged on its face?

That panel is gone now, though the peace sign lives on, tattooed directly into the hill, significantly larger. Missoula has changed in a lot of ways, but in a lot of ways it hasn't.

It's not hard to trace that Missoula spirit to the heart of the town, the University of Montana, the liberal arts institution that has fostered generations of artistic ingenuity, compassionate rallies and general weirdness.

Let's just say Missoula loved the '60s, man.

But nothing loved the '60s more than the '90s—the decade, it seemed, when mainstream America caught up with the counterculture and political awareness melded with political correctness. It's no surprise that the passionate children of the '90s became PTA warriors waging against oppressiveness in all its forms: bullying, exclusivity, marijuana laws...

This was highly evident in Missoula. If you remember Missoula in the 1990s, you remember the causes, the protests, the bumper stickers, the hacky sacks and sandals.

The Festival of the Dead seemed to fit perfectly with Missoula. This was well before the city's craft beer boom, back when sweet, earthy incense wafted onto the sidewalks from so many downtown shops. It was an era in which Missoula reveled in its countercultural identity, a politically precious blue dot in an imposing red sea. Missoula had no problem taking its stand, drawing lines in the organically composted soil.

So it makes sense that in the early 1990s Missoulians would create a festival in its own embracing image, simultaneously a multicultural invitation to the world beyond Missoula and a creative outlet for Missoulians.

The festival germinated in a conversation between two Missoula artists, Michael de Meng and Bev Beck Glueckert. Meng was still enamored of a trip he'd taken to Oaxaca, in central Mexico—especially a Mexican national holiday called Dia De Muertos, or Day of the Dead, a visually vibrant celebration centered on the confrontation and comprehension of death. The pair thought: Wouldn't it be cool to do here what they do there?

The difficulty was obvious.

"We couldn't do a Dia De Los Muertos, we didn't have a significant Latino population," says Glueckert, co-creator of the inaugural 1993 event. "We thought, we need to do a Missoula version and label it as a 'multicultural celebration of life, death and the arts.'"

The idea was not to bring the Day of the Dead to Missoula, but to create a new and independent event in which people could participate in their own ways, reflective of communities throughout Missoula and Montana. For several years after the event's launch, organizers invited speakers, lecturers and artists from the state's varied cultures and religions to talk about life and death and art.

The event evolved, as events do, and because of the name, and because the parade falls on Nov. 2, the final day of the multi-day Dia De Muertos in Mexico, the Day of the Dead influence loomed larger every year. This year, Missoula's 25th annual iteration of the festival, the parallels have become too close for comfort.

"Ask anybody on the street, what are they going to call it? They're going to call it Day of the Dead," says Rosalyn LaPier, an associate professor of environmental studies at the University of Montana. LaPier is also a volunteer spokeswoman for community members and advocacy groups throughout the state that are challenging the festival as an appropriation of Mexican culture that has airlifted elements of the authentic Day of the Dead celebration and placed them in Missoula without appropriate acknowledgement of context, cultural evolution or impact.

"One of the main issues is that this does appropriate an indigenous religious practice with its own traditions," LaPier says. "A vast majority [of Montanans] see it as Halloween Part 2, a day to have a parade, dress up, paint their faces, listen to live music and drink."

The debate has shaken the event to its foundation. It has also shaken Missoula's self-conception as a wellspring of good intentions. As the language of appropriation matures and social media enables access to shared concern and dismay, what was once considered progressive and inclusive is now under fire as oppressive.

It was probably just a matter of time before communities of color would confront the cultural norms of a majority-white town like Missoula with their concerns, whether Missoula was ready or not.

Race matters. Missoula lacks the ethnic diversity that so many Missoulians are eager to celebrate. According to 2016 U.S. Census estimates, or any cursory glance out the window, Missoula is mostly—92 percent—white. The Census reports that just over 3 percent of Missoula County residents identify as Hispanic, which is an umbrella designation that doesn't necessarily refer to strictly Mexican or even South American heritage. Even so, that 3 percent is more than 3,300 people, making Hispanics the county's largest minority group.

In 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization added Dia De Los Muertos to the "Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity." The event is a carefully thought out occasion that requires sensitivity in preparation, according to the UNESCO designation: "Great care is taken with all aspects, for it is believed that the dead are capable of bringing prosperity or misfortune upon their families depending on how satisfactorily the rituals are executed."

Such sensitivity is lacking in the Missoula event, critics say. "Because people are not learning the history of the event, it becomes a caricature," LaPier says.

Nobody (outside of social media blasts) is dismissing critics' concerns about cultural appropriation. Festival organizers have in fact been receptive to the issues raised by LaPier and others. Festival coordinator Tarn Ream says the festival's organizing committee has worked to definitively distinguish the Missoula festival from the traditional Day of the Dead. At the same time, Ream says, organizers have a responsibility to the Missoula community that has embraced the festival.

This year, the organizing committee canceled a long-running workshop inviting people to create sugar skulls, the colorful decorations that are perhaps the most iconic symbol of Mexican Day of the Dead observances. Last year, in response to similar concerns, the committee canceled festival-sanctioned face-painting booths prior to the procession. Organizers have also discussed moving the event, the procession in particular, to a different date, so as to distance Missoula's Festival of the Dead from Mexico's Day of the Dead, but ultimately decided not to.

Ream says there is a need for an event through which people can address death, and that fall is an appropriate time to do that.

Indeed, multiple cultures worldwide feature ceremonies commemorating death in late summer and fall, among them Halloween in the United States, the Hungry Ghost Festival in China and Chuseok in North and South Korea. "Fall time is a good time, it's an introspective time, things are dying all around us. There's definitely an agreement we need to keep it in the fall," Ream says.


In its original incarnation, Missoula's Festival of the Dead focused on art, via death, and while it might have been a myopic hope, Glueckert says she envisioned a Montana-centric festival.

"We had an invitation to participate in any of the events, 'Please come and bring your own expression, share with everyone,'" she says. "There was absolutely no control or jurying or censoring, no one was standing there to tell someone who can participate or not."

By the same token, there was no oversight to keep the event from becoming derivative of its inspiration, which is where the appropriation debate comes in.  

The Missoula Festival of the Dead encompasses a month of activities, most of which have no direct ties to traditional Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations. Among them are writing workshops that invite participants to pen their own obituaries, art shows and a class in which participants can create their own urns.

To that extent, Glueckert's vision of a Missoula-centric event is on full display. Then there is the procession, which is the Missoula Festival of the Dead's most iconic event. This year's procession is scheduled for Nov. 2 and is expected to feature dozens of community groups who have been welcomed to participate in any way that they choose. There is no entry fee, and aside from a general request that participants be culturally respectful, there is neither any authority nor mechanism for approving entries or messages.

"If anyone's participation is offensive to another, I don't know how to control something like that," Glueckert says.

Cultural appropriation—the dynamic by which dominant cultures adopt and adapt ideas or practices from a smaller, more vulnerable culture for any type of gain—is a difficult concept to pin down, and a thorny point of contention in contemporary identity politics. If you're unaware of the terms of the debate, it could take a week of phone calls and interviews with at least half a dozen experts and passionate community members to even start to get an idea. If you don't accept those terms, it's likely that you've already dismissed the concept as an invention of the overly sensitive and politically correct.

And that attitude is among the things that make appropriation so harmful, says Judith Heilman, executive director of the Montana Racial Equity Project, based in Bozeman.

"They can do it and be seen as just so wonderful and brave and creative, with no reference back to the culture that actually created it," Heilman says. "Meanwhile, those people who have been appropriated are vilified and subject to discrimination and oppression for [making their concerns public]."

"The way we deal with lack of diversity is to simply make things more colorful, as if everyone were on a flat playing field," says Tobin Miller Shearer, an associate professor of history and director of African American Studies at the university. "We divorce the conversation from power dynamics."

Granted, it's not hard to find a Missoulian of Mexican descent who genuinely appreciates the Festival of the Dead, procession and all, because it taps into the familiarity, even if removed by distance and practice, of home and family. It's just as easy to find another who is uncomfortable seeing a family tradition replicated by people in a country that just voted to "build the wall."

"If you went to a hundred people in Mexico and told them that they celebrate Day of the Dead here, I guarantee you most of them would say 'Wow, that's so cool,'" says Juan Hudorovich, who grew up in Mexico City and moved to Missoula about a decade ago. Hudorovich is also a parent of students at the Missoula International School, which offers a Spanish language immersion program and Day of the Dead presentations and activities during the week leading up to the holiday.

Hudorovich is a firm believer in the evolution of cultures. Appropriation happens naturally, he says, and can often help strengthen identity. In Mexico City, for instance, it's more common for people to celebrate American Halloween than Day of the Dead, he says. And many Day of the Dead displays, in which favorite foods, drinks and toys of deceased family members are arranged, now include Americanized symbols of the fall season, like pumpkins.

Hudorovich, whose wife, Lynn, grew up in Ronan, says Missoula's Festival of the Dead has little in common with traditional processions in Mexico. Even so, he appreciates and welcomes the influence.

"Doing it is more a show of respect than not doing it at all," Hudorovich says.

Hudorovich recognizes the good intentions behind the event. But intent is not always the same as what's received. Hudorovich draws a number on a piece of paper and hands it over. "I'm going to give you a 9," he says, "but what do you see as you take it? You see a 6. That isn't the same to you."

Missoula's Festival of the Dead was created to generate awareness, Hudorovich says. Call this the 9. If what we see is 6, we need more context. "Then we have to raise awareness by asking questions."

There is no doubt that Missoula's Festival of the Dead is steeped in the good intentions of the artists who participate, the procession-marchers holding candles and portraits of loved ones, and even a portion of Missoula's Mexican population, as slim as it is. However, absent a continuous reconsideration of the festival's events and constant re-evaluation of its evolution and purpose, Missoula may find that a dynamic of appropriation, if not outright racism, has been embedded into the festival, says Heidi Wallace, executive director of Empower Montana.

Empower Montana, a local nonprofit that seeks to give voice and leadership training to diverse Montana communities, attempted to facilitate a solution to concerns leveled at last year's Festival of the Dead with a sparsely attended public forum. Wallace says she doesn't want to see the festival end, but she does recognize concerns about some of the imagery it traffics in.

Wallace says the debate surrounding the festival should be considered healthy, and should happen regularly to help keep concerns at the forefront. Failure to communicate consistently could result in the creation of systemic oppression, she says.

"Systemic is when something is historically embedded, pervasive and seeped into our systems," Wallace says. "We're set up to see it as normal. That's why it's hard to peel the layers off."

Peeling those layers is harder for some than for others. Pushback to criticism of the festival has grown heated. LaPier says her concerns have been met with harsh criticism. Facebook commenters registering disagreement with her stance are frequently dismissive of her concerns, and sometimes worse.

"This is a huge issue online," LaPier says. "We, who are bringing up our concerns, have become targets for death threats and racist comments. This is not bringing out the best of Missoula."

Ream, who has been organizing the Festival of the Dead for about a decade, reports similarly heated reactions from protesters.

And this is where the conversation about cultural appropriations tends to get thrown off-track. The language used to describe the issue—"racist" and "oppressive" are commonly deployed in descriptions of appropriation—is harsh and can seem especially unfair to people accustomed to seeing themselves as allies in the fight against racism and oppression.

Ream has extended an invitation to any Hispanic volunteer to sit on the Festival of the Dead coordinating committee. She says she fully supports conversations about ingrained racism in the Missoula community, which she knows exists—"no doubt about it."

That isn't enough for critics. The two current Hispanic and Latinx festival committee members have been dismissed as "tokens," Ream says. And Heilman, with the Racial Equity Project in Bozeman, is quick to describe the invitation for people of color to join the committee in no uncertain terms.

"The oppressor is demanding the oppressed come to them, tell them how they are being oppressed, being subject to disbelief," Heilman says. "That is oppression."

Similarly, she stands firm in calling the festival and its organizers racist. The term, she says, is not restricted just to radicals who actively seek to exclude or harm people of color.

"Most people who are racists are great people," Heilman says. "'Racist' is a very broad term. People get defensive because in their minds, they have a single image that racists are avowed members of the Ku Klux Klan. Then they get defensive, because who wants to be seen as that?"

"If you're being called a racist," Ream says, "it makes it difficult to hold a conversation."

Amid the muddle, it seems abundantly clear that the good intentions that animated the founding of the Festival of the Dead are due for reconsideration. The pushback that has bubbled to the fore this year is apparently overdue. Good intentions aren't always enough. And sometimes they aren't even good.

"If we place it in the historic framework of white liberalism, people have always hidden behind good intention," says Shearer, the university's African American Studies director. "It's as if they are saying, 'The results don't matter, because we didn't mean for it to happen. As long as I had good intentions, the results would be fine.'"

But results do matter, Shearer says. Cultural appropriation is real, and it's not just a matter of hurt feelings. "It's a matter of blithely using [appropriated culture] to pursue your own cultural ends," Shearer says. And those cultural ends contain an economic element.

The Missoula Festival of the Dead is financially supported by a small group of donors, including individuals and local businesses that contribute anywhere from $50 to thousands of dollars. In total, the festival brings in about $9,000, Ream says. A big chunk of that is used to pay for art supplies and artists who teach the 18 different workshops (not including the canceled sugar skulls class) that are held throughout the month. The revenue is also used to pay for traffic barriers, the $150 parade permit and insurance for the procession, which can cost as much as $2,000. Any remainder goes to Ream, the coordinator, who otherwise volunteers her time.

As if to underscore the complexity of the racial conversation in Missoula, Shearer is a white man leading an African American Studies program. He speaks about issues of race and racism with confidence, using terms like "liberal arrogance" to describe the defensive reactions to expressed concerns of racism.

"They are much more reactive, because they felt they had solved that problem," he says.

Still, this doesn't sound like Ream, who emphasizes that neither she nor the committee wants to deny the concerns of any person in Missoula. She's led the Festival of the Dead for years, sometimes forging partnerships with organizations that contribute talent and labor. Today, she says, she can't think of another person lined up to take over coordinating duties without her.

During an afternoon interview, Ream was visibly conflicted, and exhausted.

"There's a lot of indecision here," she said, extending another invitation for community members to join the festival planning committee. "We all see that change has to happen, and we're all looking to see what that has to be."

As far as coordinating the festival moving forward, she said, rubbing her eyes and releasing a sigh, "I have some decisions to make."