Honoring The Dead Begins With Knowing How They Died

by Travis Mateer

While I’m glad the Festival of the Dead came back to the streets of Missoula, the manner in which this event had to slink back into existence has me once again thinking about local media and narrative control.

The link above takes you to the Missoulian’s second article on the festival. The first one, written by Cory Walsh, did include some context on the claims of cultural appropriation that began the slow death of this festival all the way back in 2016:

In 2016, debates over cultural appropriation in American culture at large reached the local level and the festival became a focal point. The Zootown Arts Community Center, which had taken over organizing, dropped out. It was later renamed the Festival of Remembrance, and during the pandemic was largely dormant due to safety concerns around public gatherings.

Understanding WHY things happen is important, or at least I think it’s important. When it comes to this festival, understanding the recent history will help current and future organizers understand the difficulty of recapturing what was lost, because last Thursday’s processional was NOTHING like it’s been in years past, despite the bold assertion from the organizers that it would be as big, or bigger, than years past.

Here’s what the organizers were anticipating before the event, along with a potential reason WHY it ended up being a pretty disappointing turnout (emphasis mine):

The events include the Nov. 2 procession down Higgins Avenue, which is open to any local members and groups. They “anticipate it will be as big or bigger than in previous years,” Williams said.

They also said the procession on Higgins doesn’t allow fire, throwing of objects or candy, and no motorized vehicles, per the city rules and the event insurance.

For those in attendance last Thursday night, if you were wondering why it didn’t feel the same, maybe it’s because this city’s control mechanisms are kicking in, like having to provide EVENT INSURANCE for a community processional.

Another reality moving forward for this event is the fact the naysayers are NOT simply going away, despite being denied a platform this year from local media to complain about face paint and sugar skulls like they got back in 2016.

Here’s how NBC Montana reported on some of the “controversy” in 2016:

Missoula’s 24-year-old Festival of the Dead parade is changing traditions up this year to address a new controversy.

Event organizers say they’ve received complaints about people painting sugar skulls on their face for the holiday, citing “cultural appropriation.” Sugar skulls are a sacred way of honoring the dead in some cultures and have become a popular costume at Day of the Dead and Halloween events.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate to (paint your face),” said Lauren Estabrook. “If they ask you not to, you shouldn’t do it.”

“It’s just how Native Americans don’t want people to wear headdresses, because it’s important to them. I can understand why Hispanic or Latino people would not want white people to paint their face, because that’s part of their culture,” said Lea Tonnerre.

I’m writing all this about a festival honoring the dead because I want to highlight how it’s actually the POWER OF THE MEDIA that we’re seeing here because it’s the media that can turn ON a controversy, like they did in 2016, or they can shut it out, which this year exemplifies.

You didn’t hear about angry people giving organizers and supporting businesses angry phone calls this year because the media did NOT tell you that those phone calls were happening, but they were, and I know because one of the organizers told me this directly when I spoke with her on the phone.

I was supposed to get a call back from this organizer after they had their final planning meeting before the event, but that never happened. If I did get a call back, I would have congratulated her on wonderfully appropriate ethnic name appearing on the byline of the second Missoulian article.

If you click on the name, like I did, you will see that Antonio Ibarra Olivares is a photojournalist for Lee Enterprises, so it’s pretty cool he gets to WRITE the words for article as well.

I don’t care WHO in local media steps up, but I would REALLY LIKE some help figuring out this little matter of the MULTIPLE dead bodies I keep hearing about, along with more plausible explanations for the ones I DO know about, since I don’t believe in magic chokeholds (and neither does Cyril Wecht).

I’m going to be a tremendous pain in the ass until my concerns are taken seriously, and I don’t give a shit who I piss off.

If you agree that honoring the dead includes determining how they died in the first place, then help me as I continue asking questions by supporting Travis’ Impact Fund (TIF), or making a donation at my about page.

Thanks for reading!

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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1 Response to Honoring The Dead Begins With Knowing How They Died

  1. “I’m going to be a tremendous pain in the ass until my concerns are taken seriously, and I don’t give a shit who I piss off.”

    You go, Travis! Whether I agree with you or not isn’t important, but the fact that you are taking action to correct a “perceived wrong” and won’t quit in your effort is. As Louis L’Amour said, “There is no stopping a man who knows he is right and keeps on coming.”

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