Gathering of Nations

As previously mentioned, the other attraction that piqued our interest in Albuquerque was the Powwow. Not just any Powwow, but The Gathering of Nations, an annual event comprised of thousands of Native American dancers, drummers, and singers from Tribes across North America, and we were at the right place at the right time for a change. We Googled and learned that it was biggest Native American Powwow in North America, it would be held at the Pit, (the University of New Mexico Arena), and would run from Thursday night through Saturday. So, about eleven on Saturday morning, we arrived at the arena box office, got tickets, and headed inside.

It was a huge stadium and tent complex, with vendors of leatherwork, beadwork and jewelry. Dancers in their outfits were everywhere, the atmosphere electric with excitement. We were definitely not ‘one of them’, but felt very welcomed. Before taking our seats, we checked out the large Trading tent, where everything made by or for Native Americans was for sale. Both tourists and Pow-Wow participants filled the aisles, meeting with friends or purchasing more beads, feathers, or leathers, for their outfits.



A wildlife preservation fundraising exhibit had three live birds of prey, one of which was a magnificent eagle, hooded and calmly waiting on its handler’s glove. The photographer set people up to be photographed and the handler crouched behind them with the bird and slipped the hood off his head for the picture. It was a very tolerant bird.

Microsoft was there, with several huge monitors pushing software and video games, looking out of place, but claiming their interest in the education of Native Americans.

At last, we descended the steep steps of the arena. Many benches were covered with thick blankets or quilts, to hold a place for family members of participants, complete with suitcases for outfits and paraphernalia. We found an unclaimed bench and I sat on a folded shirt and Bruce sat on his hat and a newspaper, as we waited the Grand Entrance of the Dancers at noon. Just below us, a woman in a jingle dress carefully braided and wrapped the long black hair of a couple younger girls, then fastened their elaborately beaded medallions and headdresses. Young men pulled on their leggings over athletic shorts, adjusted twin-feathered, horse or badger-hair headdresses, strapped on splendid feather bustles, to their lower backs and shoulders.

Down on the arena floor, the different clans responded to the Drum Roll Call. Each of eight or so clans were represented by a circle of men sitting around a huge drum striking their long sticks in perfect rhythm. Very loud, very intense. Then, as the many drums established the heart-beat of this gathering, the elders descended from the entry ramp with their eagle feather standard followed by notables of the tribes, all in their glorious traditional regalia.

The dancer groups were announced, and descended into the center of the arena: first the men, then the ladies, then the young, then the very young, until the floor was full of over three thousand dancers, slowly flowing in a clockwise circle.

After introductions, invocation, prayer and recognition of special attendees, the floor was cleared and the dancing competitions began: the earnest but uncertain steps of the tiny tots, the serene dignity of the senior women doing their simple knee-bend steps, the toe-sole steps of the shawl dancers, the elegant and more complex steps of the jingle dancers, and the seriously athletic, often one-legged whirling and crouches of the fancy feather dancers. Soft, exquisitely beaded moccasins and extensive practice made most dancers appear to float, their toes seeming to barely touch the floor.

As each group finished, it stood in a breathless row while singers and hand-drummers performed. Somehow, the next dancers would materialize as the former dancers dispersed, and yet another performance absorbed us. We barely noticed how hard the benches were until just before the dinner break when we went out to stretch and grab a bite. At the far end of the trading tent, Stage 46, an outdoor soundstage, had been set up to feature contemporary Native American jazz and rock musicians. At the Gathering, tradition is revered, but innovation seems to be much respected as well.

Returning to the Pit, we sat in the upper mezzanine for a different perspective and more comfortable seats with backs. After dinner break, the Grand Entrance of Dancers began again. Sitting there, gazing down into this extraordinary flowering of a great and varied culture, the relentless beat of the pow-wow drums entrained to our own heart-beat, the wild release of songs and cries soaring above the glowing, swirling mass of dancers, we felt so privileged, as outsiders, to have been allowed to witness this beautiful celebration of a people, this Gathering of Nations.

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