Helena School District tightens oversight of Vigilante Parade floats after criticism of Native American depictions

Posted at 6:32 PM, May 01, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-05 15:10:21-04

HELENA – Helena’s Vigilante Parade has become a spring tradition, with a history stretching back almost 100 years. As part of the annual parade, local high school students create floats highlighting aspects of Montana’s history and culture.

But last year, the parade sparked controversy. Some Helena residents and advocacy groups criticized one float for its representation of Native Americans. They argued the float, which depicted the Madison Buffalo Jump, perpetuated stereotypes.

“This year, I want to make absolutely certain that we don’t get in that same kind of situation,” said Helena Public Schools Superintendent Jack Copps.

Copps said he will now have the final say on whether to approve any float designs that represent Native American topics. He said he has already met with some of the students who are planning floats with native themes.

“I’m convinced at this point that their intent will please people who see the float,” he said. “The kids who have put together the floats have gone to a great effort to make sure that it accurately depicts the Native American history and the culture.”

Students will be constructing their floats on Thursday. Copps said he will check back with them through the process.

“I have set up three different times when I will actually go to the site where the float is being put together and make sure that the float is being put together as the committee has represented it,” he said.

The Vigilante Parade is sponsored by the school district. Students create floats based on a variety of suggested historical topics. The district provides a set of cultural guidelines, stressing that American Indians and other minorities should not be depicted in stereotypical ways. The guidelines specifically warn against things like “inappropriate and offensive costumes” and “dancing and drumming in a Hollywood style.”

Copps said every float that participates receives approval from the students’ principal, but that administrators determined more attention needs to be given to those with Native American themes.

“It is the Vigilante Parade, and because it’s the Vigilante Parade, sometimes the floats become kind of comical, a little bit warped in regards to the representation that’s intended,” he said. “That’s all right in the Vigilante Parade, until it reaches the point that it’s disrespectful to a person’s background or origin.”

Copps said district leaders appreciate the people who weighed in with criticisms for last year’s parade.

“Even though the reviews were not good, I appreciate the reviews, because it provides us with the opportunity to correct some serious errors,” he said.

The 2018 Vigilante Parade will start Friday at noon, near the intersection of Last Chance Gulch and Neill Avenue. It will run south along Last Chance Gulch to Broadway, then north on Park Avenue to around Stuart Street.