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Spokane's Labor Day event keeps evolving

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WELLPINIT, Wash. - The Spokane Tribe will celebrate its 93rd annual pow wow over Labor Day weekend. ''Pow wows evolve,'' David Browneagle commented. Browneagle, now 57, started dancing at Wellpinit when he was six so he can look back with a personal insight of over 50 years.

''We used to have a two or three story white building in the center of the pow wow grounds. It was like a county fair where we put food and vegetables that people grew, and arts and crafts items they made.''

The building for the dances was much smaller than the current one. ''It was pretty small and pretty dusty. Because of its size, only the first eight drums to sign up would get paid,'' he said.

''There were no contests. You would go out and dance and at the end of the session you would get a little gratuity. It might be a dollar, two dollars. That was kind of nice. You'd go out to dance, enjoy yourself, and being around people, not just to wait for the contest to start.

''When I was younger there were no grand entries. People would start setting up the drum, someone would start singing and you'd start dancing. You would go until they stopped drumming,'' Browneagle said. ''Now you might go to daylight, but it's so everyone can get their contests out of the way.''

George Flett also remembers that era in Wellpinit. ''The dance area was a little round circle. The top was enclosed with canvas. The present building was built in the early '70s and is much larger.''

Flett talked of the change in vendors. ''Even 10 years ago, more people were making their own things for sale: beaded items for dance regalia, jewelry, that sort of thing. Now there are more imported things made in China or someplace.''

Dancing styles and regalia have changed as well.

''Perhaps we're leaning a little more to the style of dances we saw in our younger days,'' Flett said. ''Like the old style of Grass dancing or the Horse Tail Dance special we're going to put on. We're also looking at more of the older regalia that's been put away for years and years in trunks - the old, round bustles and old beadwork.''

Both men agree that stick games have remained pretty much unchanged. ''They still use a lot of the older songs,'' Flett said.

''My family would always sit together. We'd never bet against one another,'' Browneagle commented. ''If there is any change it would be in that regard.''

The ease of travel has increased attendance.

''It isn't local anymore. It isn't people crossing the river or over the mountain to visit a pow wow. Now we're flying and traveling across the country. It's gotten huge,'' Browneagle said.

''You rarely see tipis anymore. That's a sad thing. When I was a little boy the whole center portion was all tipis. Now you have RVs and tents. If a number of tipis go up, there's usually a tipi contest,'' he laughed.

A positive change has been the removal of alcohol and drugs. It went unchecked in the early years. In 1980, a drug-free area was roped off for camping. In the late 1980s, everyone entering the pow wow grounds was checked for drugs or alcohol as they entered the gate and the entire grounds have been drug- and alcohol-free ever since.

Flett began sponsoring an art auction about 15 years ago which brings additional visitors. ''It's pretty exciting to see an old piece of beadwork or basket come up for auction. Last year we had a paint horse in the auction.''

Flett also began sponsoring a Prairie Chicken Dance contest 12 years ago. That's become an annual event, with top dancers coming from many states.

Browneagle summed up the Wellpinit pow wow.

''The spirit of the gathering, the dancing, family, friendship, the sharing of food, everything about it is stronger than ever. Families again take time to feed visitors and relatives. It didn't ever leave, but it's more prominent now. Regardless of how big the pow wow is or how much money is put out, the family thing is still there.''