Tradition is alive at the home of Willie Stevens.
You see that before you even arrive at the doorstep of his home back in the woods across the highway from St. Ignatius.
The first hint comes with a well-worn sign that says this is the way to Horse Camp. It’s perched at the end of his long gravel driveway that winds through the aspen and other assorted greenery.
Back in the woods, there are a couple of young people patiently working with a couple of horses. A week earlier, more than 100 youngsters gathered there to learn about horses and life. Their tepee poles are stacked on a trailer off to the other side.
Once you’ve arrived, it’s hard to miss the huge poster with the words Arlee Esyapqeyni printed in bold letters across the top of a historical photograph tacked to the front of the home. With pride, Stevens points out his relative standing in a long line of men in the sepia-toned photograph taken sometime near 1905.
“This gathering has always been a tradition for us,” Stevens said.
This year, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Nation will sponsor the 119th annual Esyapqeyni celebration of the Salish and Pend-d’Oreille tribes between Wednesday, June 28, and Tuesday, July 4.
Stevens chairs the celebration that has deep roots for the Salish and Pend-d’Oreille.
A portion of the word Esyapqeyni means to come together.
“That is what this has always been about,” Stevens said as he settles into a chair and watches a smiling young man gallop a horse bareback through the wood with nothing more than a halter and a rope. “After a long winter, the people would go out and gather the bitter root and other supplies and then the chiefs would pick a spot for everyone to come together and celebrate.
“The chiefs would pick a nice spot — someplace like here — and then send out runners to let the people know where the Esyapqeyni would be held starting on the next new moon,” Stevens said. “It was a celebration and people could catch up with each other after a long winter.”
While today’s gatherings are more commercialized than those decades ago, Stevens said it’s still a time for people to come together and see family and old friends and meet new ones.
The events were set to begin Thursday afternoon with a feed hosted by the Esyapqeyni Committee, followed by a memorial service and registration.