Killing Missoula’s Festival Of The Dead

by William Skink

*UPDATE:  The Zootown Arts Community Center did NOT make the statement ascribed to them in the post.  I am almost certain I got it from the FB page of the Montana Racial Equity Project.  Strange.

The feature piece in the Indy this week is about the effort of the Festival of the Dead protestors to shame all the white people in Missoula who have culturally appropriated the Day of the Dead, a cultural event in Mexico that was itself appropriated by colonizing Spaniards and mixed with Catholic elements. You can read the whole article here.

The activist professor, Tobin Shearer, has jumped on the white-shaming bandwagon with this announcement on Twitter:

Given the controversy and push back being faced by my trusted colleagues Roz LaPier and David Beck and others, I am compelled to go on record stating my clear opposition to Missoula’s Day of the Dead. The path forward needs to be fully and authentically led by the indigenous community. Anything less is cultural appropriation.

While this statement claims a potential path forward, a blog post by Shearer states explicitly the effort of the protestors is to end the Festival of the Dead, not find some authentic indigenous path to continue it:

As a careful and well-thought out organizing effort has emerged in Missoula, Montana, to end our city’s Festival of the Dead, I have been struck by the many similarities between the responses to the “Fake Latinos” article that I wrote and those objecting to protests against the Festival of the Dead. Five of them seem worth describing.

Last year, when this controversy emerged, the organizers made concessions and stopped certain elements of the Festival, like face painting. But I’m wondering now if the organizers knew that what the protestors actually wanted was to end the Festival, not reform it. Here’s some perspective from one of the protestors:

“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.

White liberals generally deploy identity politics and PC culture against their political opponents on the right, but in this instance they are the ones being targeted. I would be tempted to enjoy the irony of this if the Festival of the Dead wasn’t something I’ve enjoyed attending over the years, first as a student in Missoula, then with my family.

I am going to attend this year because I suspect this will be the last year the Festival is held. Local politicians, like City Councilwoman Marilyn Marler, will not be attending:

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.”

So Marler caved to the protestors. The Zootown Arts Community Center is also caving in. Here is their statement from Facebook:

This will be the last year that the Missoula Zootown Arts Community Center (ZACC) sponsors the Festival of the Dead in Missoula. The FOTD, should it continue, must be entirely Indigenous and people of color led in order to ensure accuracy and sensitivity.

It is long-standing in Montana and the U.S. that non-people of color are happy to use aspects of minority cultures when they can have fun with it, benefit from it financially or socially, and when it just plain suits them. However, the vast majority of the same (mostly) white people are not out front in actively fighting against the cruel and often deadly effects of individual and systemic racism, oppression, and discrimination of the same minority cultures. In fact, many continue to perpetuate it. People of color see the hypocrisy of this cultural appropriation. It is racism. No, not the KKK, Richards Spencer kind, but racism nonetheless.

As the author and activist Nik Moreno says, “It’s rough knowing that your ancestors died and were called savages for their practices and rituals, only to become a token.”

We encourage white folks to take your privilege seriously. Recognize the history of the privilege you have and be sensitive to it. Don’t just use what you want to take from minorities. Use your privilege to give voice to the oppressed and voiceless.

All this talk about cultural appropriation got me thinking about how Christianity often appropriated pagan culture and its rituals. I would be curious to know what Tobin Shearer thinks about this, since he’s a Christian who attends church. Here is something I found about how that appropriation literally subsumed the physical space of the Pantheon:

The Pantheon itself is a case in point regarding the cultural pollution of the early Church. It was one of several pagan temples to be repurposed into churches during the 5th and 6th centuries. However, the Pantheon still retains memories of its origin. To the modern onlooker, it might be unremarkable that the inner sanctuary is round. But to the pagan builders, the shape was a visual demonstration of the equal status shared by the seven gods. After entering the sanctuary, a worshipper could wander to any one of the niches, or cycle through all seven, or just pay respects to three or four. He had options. Conversely, when Christians built their own churches, the sanctuaries were long and narrow. Worshippers walked the length of a basilica from porch to apse, ascending from the world to a single point of devotion at the head of the building: the communion table. These two layouts illustrate fundamentally different ideas about the divine nature and the manner of proper devotion. How can Christians justify gathering in a temple where the very architecture teaches things antithetical to true monotheistic religion? Shouldn’t this temple be destroyed and replaced by a proper church, rather than preserved?

There is a long and violent history of non-Christian Europeans being persecuted by the church. But that happened a long time ago. Since then the social construct of whiteness has evolved beyond European cultural distinctions to simply include anyone of European decent. And if those white people don’t acknowledge their privilege (even the Irish?) then the 21st century social justice warriors will pounce.

What will be accomplished by ending the Festival of the Dead? Will it help the disproportionate numbers of Native Americans in Montana jails and prisons? Will it help the poverty and corruption on Reservations? Will it inspire more white allies to join the cause, or, more likely, will it create more confusion and resentment among well-intentioned people who will never be able to apologize enough for being born white and privileged?

About Travis Mateer

I'm an artist and citizen journalist living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
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11 Responses to Killing Missoula’s Festival Of The Dead

  1. James Conner says:

    “Cultural appropriation” is not an idea that I can take seriously. It strikes me as the functional equivalent of blasphemy, and of self-righteousness on steroids. The Festival of the Dead is not an event that stirs my juices — nothing with Dead in its name would — but given the self-appointed guardians of cultural purity want to shut down FOTD, the event has my backhanded blessing. May it live longer than the crusade against “cultural appropriation.”

  2. JC says:

    I suppose the Wild Walk Parade will be the next to go, you know, appropriating animal culture and dressing up like animals and all.

    It’s funny this “fully and authentically led by the indigenous community”. When the FOTD got started there were many peoples of color, latin americans, and indigenous native peoples involved. The local afro-cuban dance/drum ensemble prepped for the event, and invited Haitian masters to train and teach drummers and dancers. A Columbian woman helped people with their costumes and makeup. Rituals were conceived and conducted by a variety of individuals who were descended from non-americans.

    So what happened? Ritual-starved white americans flocked to the event as it grew, finding some meaning outside of their WalMart/McDonalds/football culture. So, we take away a meaningful ritual and replace it with…???

  3. Carla Augustad says:

    Samhain is a similar Pagan for white people. Perhaps there are folks who would rather adorn their altars. https://www.thoughtco.com/celebrate-the-god-goddess-at-samhain-2562703

    • JC says:

      We’d probably just get lambasted for appropriation of the gaelic culture by putting on a community samhain event.

      This whole cultural appropriation phenomena is really interesting. Pretty much America is a melting pot of peoples who are expected to put aside any cultural traditions when they become american, or are born here.

      We must all bow down to the MAGA culture of the white male norm: pretend christianity; worship capitalism; put the flag and singing of the national anthem and saying of the pledge of allegiance above all else; eschew science; dress in black and bury people in the ground after morbid funerals in churches and mortuaries, complete with weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth; praise soldiers in their pursuit of the hegemonic oligarchy of the ruling elites; worship the 4th of July’s “rocket’s red glare” version of rampant militarism; pretend to give thanks to generosity and abundance when what we really did was take, take, take from the first americans…

      I could go on and on, but if anybody could point to any real meaningful american culture that has evolved on par with other longer-lived societies, maybe we could begin to have something worthwhile to celebrate. In the meantime, we are a nation of immigrants surrounding a few indigenous americans. We have brought all those external rituals with us in an attempt to find meaning as a people, distinct from the exceptionalist MAGA (as if we were ever great) sentimentality that the rest of the world despises.

  4. Kia Liszak says:

    Hi,
    I’m the director of the Zootown Arts Community Center and I am curious as to where you got that “statement from our Facebook page.” That statement is not from our Facebook page and the Zootown Arts Community Center did not issue the above statement anywhere. What is your source?

  5. JC says:

    Here is a good post from Latino Rebels about the issue:

    How Fear of Cultural Appropriation Is Canceling Out Cultural Education — Pauline Campos

    …Let me be clear: I am not offended if you are not of Latino/Latinx descent and you have embraced Día de Los Muertos in any way. My problem is being told I should be offended and having others getting mad on my behalf without asking my feelings first. Do not assume. I’m fine voicing my opinion when I’m actually offended by something.

    Maybe it’s because I didn’t come to celebrate Dia de Los Muertos until adulthood, or maybe it’s because my circle of friends is so incredibly diverse. No matter the reason, I find myself speaking out on behalf of refocusing our collective efforts on cultural education. Intent speaks volumes. Respect for the traditions and costumes of another culture is something I will stand by and make room for. I won’t speak for other minority groups regarding sacred celebrations and traditions turned into a cheap, stereotypical costume, such as the Moana costume that Disney took heat for last year before pulling it from the market, but I think Día de Los Muertos is different.

    At its core, the Day of the Dead celebrates life and our everlasting connection with our loved ones who’ve passed on. While steeped in indigenous beliefs and traditions, I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing for the world at large to let go of the fear so often associated with death…

    I don’t want cultural appropriation to cancel out the opportunity for cultural education. And that is what I fear will happen.

    If the face behind the sugar skull makeup, white or otherwise, has taken the time to learn about the meaning of Día de Los Muertos, I think it’s okay. If the person taking the time to create an ofrenda to a departed loved one they miss in an effort to soothe their grief with a tradition that brings them joy band comfort, I’m not going to ask to see their Mexican card. Instead, I will light a candle with them and trade stories about our loved ones we never want to forget. And I will feel honor that it was a tradition from my culture that has brought them peace.

    • well said.

      JC, what do you make of the false statement attributed to ZACC? I double checked on its promotion by the Montana Racial Equity Project, and that’s where I got the statement. I would look into it if I wasn’t finishing up a kick ass song about fake things.

      • JC says:

        Yeah, it was the MT Racial Equity Project FB page that said it. They probably mistook what the Indy wrote last week. Here’s the screen clip:

  6. allen says:

    It’d be great if Missoula’s Day of the Dead festival was put on by people with Chicano heritage. But it’s not. It’s organized by a guy who went on vacation to Mexico. And it takes place in a city that recognizes the no-judge, no-due process ‘warrants’ issued by ICE. So yeah, fuck the festival and fuck ZACC for putting it on and pretending like it’s okay because they don’t support Trump.

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