day of the dead

Cathrine L. Walters

In depictions of the Danse Macabre, that medieval trope for the universality of death, the dead and the living skip together to the grave in eerie celebration of their collective, inevitable demise.

The Nov. 2 processional through downtown Missoula, the final event of the 25th annual Festival of the Dead, is likely to feel just as macabre. Intended as a chance to “reflect on the importance of those who have gone before us in shaping our lives,” the processional has come to be seen by indigenous activists as the emblem for what’s problematic about the festival as a whole. University of Montana professor Rosalyn LaPier summed up the criticism in a recent Indy cover story (“Dead Ahead,” Oct. 26): “One of the main issues is that this does appropriate an indigenous religious practice with its own traditions. 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 day after that story was published, one of the groups protesting the event appeared to break news that suggested this year’s procession could be the last.

The Montana Racial Equity Project announced Oct. 27 on its Facebook page that the festival’s fiscal sponsor, the Zootown Arts Community Center, would pull out of the event next year. The announcement was odd, however, in that it didn’t come from the ZACC. Two days later, the Racial Equity Project added a follow-up post “standing by” its earlier statement and explaining that its representatives, along with those from the Montana Human Rights Network and the ACLU, had met with festival organizers on Oct. 26.

By REP’s account, the meeting did not go well. The group wrote that festival committee head Tarn Ream “rejected even the slightest notion that most elements and the working philosophy behind Missoula’s FOTD, particularly the procession, are racist and discriminatory due to cultural and religion appropriation despite detailed explanation.”

Ream declined to comment on the meeting and directed questions about fiscal sponsorship to the ZACC. Director Kia Liszak didn’t return a call, but did post in an online blog comment that her organization has not issued a statement regarding its sponsorship of the event.

Presumably the ZACC will clarify its position after the procession wraps up. But if REP’s claim holds up, this year’s Festival of the Dead may turn out to be a wake for its own demise.

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