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Horse tribute and first contact at Julyamsh

POST FALLS, Idaho – “Today our Julyamsh riders ride in memorial to the horse father. They pay tribute to the old people who rode in these mountains. The horse blesses the ground with his foot, his hoof. Each step is a prayer for the old people. So now, the blessing of the ground will start,” intoned Cliff SiJohn as riders in full regalia entered the arena where dancing would soon take place as dancers began lining up for the grand entry.

SiJohn is an elder with the Coeur d’Alene tribe, a historian who learned the old stories from his elders when he was still a boy. He is frequently called on to speak at gatherings, offer prayers or instruct others in the history and ways of the tribe. He explained that Julyamsh, the huge annual pow wow of the Coeur d’Alene tribe, is a combination of the English word “July” when Independence Day is celebrated and a time when the tribe would gather for racing and contesting, with the Native word amsh which means to gather and sit down.

“These are the things that Julyamsh represents. It’s bringing our Indian families from all over to help us pray and to invite our neighbors, the July people, to come and sit down. Julyamsh belongs to all human beings and we must always look at it that way. Come and help us celebrate a good life. Come and share with us cultural exchange,” SiJohn asked.

This year there was a change in the program. Each session, before the grand entry, began with a testimonial to the horse with mounted riders in full regalia circling the outdoor arena, followed by a re-enactment of the tribe’s first encounter with the white world when Scottish traders associated with David Thompson and the Northwest Fur Company arrived in the spring of 1808.

SiJohn is an orator who holds his audience’s attention as he relates the stories. With the accompaniment of a Native flute and in a slow, dramatic style, his voice rolled out from the loudspeakers as he told of the many villages that once dotted their land. He told of the vast area the tribe once occupied. And he told of a battle lost near the site of Julyamsh.

“We ride a memorial to the horse, for it was our brother and sister the horse that gave his life about a mile and a half downriver from where we now stand. In September of 1858, Col. [George] Wright and almost a thousand soldiers came into this country to do nothing but kill Indians and punish them. They rounded up over a thousand head of horses and killed 900 of them, slaughtered them. In effect they put us on foot with winter coming. It was a hard time for us and the things that got us through were our tradition, our culture and our feelings about our homelands. We have never lost sight of that.” He continued, “As the sun sets, to start the ceremony for the evening, the horses’ spirits will be here with us. We can feel over 900 head of our brothers and sisters who are just down the river.”

Speaking in his native language, then in English, SiJohn offered this prayer: “Grandfather in heaven, look at us – our relatives, our visitors, our guests, our families. Thank you for the power and the spirit of the horse. Thank you for the beauty of this horse and these riders. Bless these visitors and their families and let us remember our dead, our losses. But they are with us in their spirits and we thank you for this gathering, to remember each other and to remember all who have gone ahead of us.”

As the horses and riders exited one end of the arena, a lone trader wearing buckskins entered from the other end carrying a rifle and leading a horse loaded with hides.

SiJohn continued, “Then one day, to the north of us, there was a visitor. Somebody came. We had heard about them. Circling Raven had told us almost 60 years before that they were coming. He saw a vision – the su-yapi. In the spring of 1808 a man by the name of Joco Finlay arrived. He was the advance man for David Thompson to open up the Columbia for trade. When he came, the warriors spotted him and they came running towards him to confront him.” While SiJohn spoke, two Native riders on horseback galloped in and circled the trader, whooping and making threatening moves toward him.

“Black Wolf and his brother circled him to see if he had courage. They said Joco Finlay stood in one place, his horse circling, his arm up with his weapon. Black Wolf asked him in sign, ‘Who are you? Where do you come from? What is in your heart?’ Finlay answered, ‘I am su-yapi. I come here to trade. I come from across the Rocky Mountains to the east. There are many of us coming. I come in peace and friendship.’ Black Wolf looked at him and said, ‘Follow me. We will take you to the chiefs in the village and we will talk and we will smoke and we’ll see if your heart is true.’”

“This little meadow is where the first contact was made. And when they left this little meadow neither of their peoples would ever be the same. The sun set on that day on an era that was thousands and thousands of years old,” SiJohn ended.

Record high temperatures likely reduced total attendance somewhat, but upward of 450 dancers registered and no problems existed despite the heat. The Coeur d’Alene tribe noted that Julyamsh was again very successful.