After a float in last year’s Vigilante Parade was criticized for its portrayal of Native Americans, the superintendent of Helena Public Schools will personally approve any float related to Native American culture ahead of the 94th annual event on May 4.
The float was supposed to portray the Madison Buffalo Jump in Three Forks, where Native Americans strategically hunted by herding buffalo over a cliff for 2,000 years. It included scantily clad girls in "squaw" outfits, teepees with inaccurate symbols, and students making "whooping" noises.
An online video of the float was viewed more than 100,000 times and spurred a debate between students, school district officials and community members about whether it was racist or offensive. During the controversy last year, Superintendent Jack Copps wasn’t aware of or involved in the screening process, and the educator responsible for approving each float said there wasn’t enough time to properly vet them all.
One of the longest-running high school parades in the United States, Helena's 93rd Vigilante Parade rolled through downtown Helena Friday afternoon.
While the usual guidelines and approval process will stay in place, students who want to create a float related to Native American culture will have to jump through an extra hoop and personally meet with Copps to explain their float this year.
While Copps said then annual event is historically important to the school district and the community, changes must be made to ensure the floats don’t portray Native Americans with hurtful stereotypes.
“We do not want that to happen again,” he said. “If you do this, you have to have a meeting with the superintendent about what you intend and how you intend to do it.”
In the past, students have been allowed to choose from a list of approved themes related to Native American history, Helena’s history, pioneer life, mining or famous people. The cultural guidelines say students can not represent Native American people or other minorities with stereotypes. The guidelines prohibit painted faces, dancing and drumming in a Hollywood style or inappropriate costumes. Also forbidden are depictions of Native Americans assaulting women.
Amanda Walking Child, the Indian Education for All educator who approves the Native American-themed floats, previously said she didn’t see the inappropriate costumes until the students were already wearing them. And when she approved the float, the teepee with inaccurate symbols wasn’t part of it. This year, her process of approving floats will be the same but the onus will be on Copps to make sure the parade is without cultural misappropriation.
“I’m just following what Jack wants. I’m still approving the floats, but he has the final say,” Walking Child said.
Copps recognized that the extra step to meet with the superintendent could discourage students from floats related to Native American culture and ultimately keep them from learning about a significant portion of the state’s history.
“It takes more work to reflect on what’s culturally correct,” he said. “Students tend to lean toward a float that doesn’t require a lot of research time.”
So far, no students have proposed a float on Native American history.
“I hope this doesn’t mean we’re going to eliminate these floats,” he said. “We’re better off not having those floats if we can’t get this right.”
Today marks the 93rd birthday of Helena's Vigilante Parade, which ranks among the longest-running high school parades in the nation.
With about 100 floats, the Vigilante Parade is a Helena institution and one of the longest-running high school parades in the country. In a letter published in the Independent Record in 1939, Helena High School Principal A.J. Roberts explained how the parade ended a “bitter class war.”
An annual fight between the junior and senior classes was resulting in injured students and destroyed property and interrupted school for three or four days. From May 1 to May 15, the seniors would put up their class banner on the school grounds. The juniors would try to take the banner down and a fight would always break out. When the school prohibited the fight on campus, it took to streets and alleys, Roberts' letter said.
“A few boys each year came out of the fray with black eyes, bloody noses, teeth knocked out, faces scratched and bodies bruised, all for the honor of the ‘biggest and best class ever graduated from Helena High School,’” Roberts wrote.
In an attempt to end the fight, the school proposed tug-of-war, a baseball game and a wrestling match that become more bloody than the original fight. Eventually, the students came up with a pageant that would become the Vigilante Parade. The first parade was held in May 1924.
“This parade, so little thought of at the time, and then only as a splendid substitute for several lawless activities, has more than any other institutions distinguished the city of Helena and its high school,” the letter said.
The 94th Vigilante Parade will start at noon May 4 on Last Chance Gulch.