Dancers make the grand entry at a previous Shoshone-Bannock Indian Festival. This year’s festival started Thursday and ends Sunday.

FORT HALL – The 56th Annual Shoshone-Bannock Indian Festival started Thursday as Native Americans from tribes across the U.S. and Canada gathered at Fort Hall to watch and participate in the biggest outdoor powwow in Idaho.

With half a century of history behind it, Wendy Farmer, coordinator of the 2019 festival, said this year’s event will be bigger and better than ever with several new offerings for people to enjoy.

“The festival’s reputation is growing,” Farmer said. “I’ve had phone calls from people all across the country, many of them people from other countries, wanting to know whether it’s okay for them to attend.”

Everyone is invited to the festival, and no admission is charged, Farmer said, although there is a charge for events at the rodeo arena.

In addition to hundreds of dancers competing for prize money, or dancing just for the love of it, there will be numerous dance specials, two parades, two rodeos, Indian relay races, bull riding, men’s and women’s slow-pitch softball tournaments, traditional gaming, a horseshoe tournament and vendors selling arts and crafts and food.

The festival will kick off at 10 a.m. Thursday with the Children’s Warrior Parade. It will start at the corner of East Agency and Eagle roads, travel down Bannock Drive and end at the Delbert Farmer Memorial Dance Arbor on the festival grounds.

That day’s events will include Indian relay racing and professional bull rider Wiley Petersen’s “Bull Riding Mayhem” at the rodeo grounds, with the junior and senior rodeos taking place on Thursday and Friday, and the National Indian Rodeo Association professional rodeo Saturday and Sunday.

Grand entries for the dancing, when hundreds of dancers in full regalia will parade through the dance arbor, will be held each day, with the biggest on Friday evening.

When the dancing starts, some will be there for the love of it, but many will be showcasing their beautiful regalia and fancy steps as they compete for thousands of dollars in prize money to the rhythms provided by one of the drum groups.

The drums are among the best on the Powwow Trail, and they also will be competing at this year’s festival for prize money. The one judged the best will go home with $20,000.

The Bear Creek Singers from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada, are host drum for this year’s festival, and the head drum judge will be Lee Whiteplume, a Nez Perce from Lapwai. Rueben Little Head, Northern Cheyenne from Lame Deer, Mont., has been tapped to handle master of ceremony duties. He will be assisted by local emcees Michael Mendez, Michael Wilson, Jordan Broncho, and Tyson Shay.

Farmer said there will be many dance specials, including the one scheduled for Saturday that will honor Native American military veterans. The Veterans Dance Special is open only to the Shoshone, Bannock, and Paiute tribes, she said, and they can be dressed in uniform, fatigues, or regalia. The dance will take place after the noon grand entry.

According to a news release from the tribes, the Veterans Dance will not only honor veterans, but will also bring attention to the fact the Fort Hall Reservation has been designated a “Purple Heart Reservation,” by the Military Order of the Purple Heart USA, to support and honor members wounded in combat, the first reservation in the U.S. to have that honor.

Four all-Indian rodeos are scheduled. The first was the Junior Rodeo Thursday morning, and tribal member and professional bull rider Wiley Petersen hosted Bull Riding Mayhem at the rodeo grounds Thursday night. The Senior Rodeo is scheduled for 10 a.m. Friday.

Contestants from the Western States Indian Rodeo Association, a region of the Indian National Finals Rodeo, will be competing in the INFR Tour Rodeo in an effort to add to the points that will get them to the INFR finals in Las Vegas, Nev., this October. That rodeo will begin at 7 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. on Sunday.

Competition dancing will begin Friday evening and end sometime on Sunday after all the judging is over. The “Chiefs Parade” for adults is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday, with Petersen as grand marshal.

Indian relay racing will take place at the rodeo grounds at 5 p.m. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday with 23 teams competing, and the championship race is scheduled for 5 p.m. Sunday.

There will also be a free community buffalo and salmon feast at the dance arbor beginning at 5 p.m. on Saturday.