In a happy piece of serendipity, our trip to the Southwest included an unexpected weekend in Albuquerque. The places we’d planned to tour were cold and wet, and the sunny skies of New Mexico beckoned. There was an added draw as well when we realized we would be in the city during the annual Gathering of Nations Pow Wow.
The Gathering of Nations is the largest pow wow in North America. Begun in 1983, it includes more than 3,000 dancers and singers from 700 tribes across the U.S., Canada. Between 30,000 and 40,000 spectators attend the three-day event.
The 2016 gathering was held at the University of New Mexico basketball arena. You didn’t even need to attend the dance performances to be entertained, for just walking down the hallways was amazing. I wanted to stop and admire nearly every person I saw. In the public restroom I kept sneaking glances at the other women lined up at the mirror. Never have I felt so much like a plain Midwesterner.
The event began with a Grand Entry of Dancers, in which all the performers filed into the arena, forming a spiral that became tighter and tighter as ever more people entered. The resonant, repetitive sounds of drums and singing filled the arena, accompanied by higher notes created by the jingles and bells worn by many of the dancers. Adding to the cacophony was the excited buzz of conversations in the bleachers around us.
The Gathering of Nations marks the beginning of pow wow season. Throughout the summer, they are held at hundreds of sites across North America. Filled with dancing, drumming, singing, feasting, and socializing, pow wows are sustaining and revitalizing the diverse tribal cultures of the continent. They help preserve traditional cultures, nurture bonds of community, and connect participants to their spiritual roots.
The dancing alone is reason to attend a pow wow. There are a wide variety of styles, including women’s fancy shawl, women’s jingle, men’s fancy feather, men’s grass, and women’s southern cloth/buckskin. The competitions are divided by age as well as style, with junior and teen divisions in addition to adult ones. Participants are judged both on their dancing and on the beauty and craftsmanship of their outfits, which are often made by the dancers themselves.
At the Gathering of Nations, there’s also the crowning of Miss Indian World, an Indian Traders Market with jewelry, pottery, and other arts and crafts for sale, and vendors selling native and local foods. A separate stage has native artists performing contemporary styles of music, from rock to country.
The people-watching was wonderful. I remember sitting in the bleachers as two young men in front of me assembled their elaborate costumes. It took them almost a half hour to put on all their feathers and other accoutrements and adjust them just so. Their demeanor was both serious and excited, and when I saw them dance on the floor a few minutes later I had a much better sense for how important this event was to them.
I loved, too, seeing the warm interactions between families and friends. The pow wow felt like a huge family reunion (only with far more color and vibrancy than any I’ve ever attended).
The thing I remember most from my time at the pow wow was a dance we observed on a side stage, not the main venue. We were walking by when I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of a combination woman/bear who was beginning to dance.
At the bottom of this post is a YouTube video of this dance, which really must be seen to be appreciated. Words can’t begin to do it justice. It was the most spellbinding blending of animal and human imagery I’ve ever seen. You might think it would be creepy to wear the skin of a dead animal on one’s back, but it wasn’t at all. It was incredibly moving, for the dancer had such an expression of reverence on her face that it brought tears to my eyes.
The dancer was Laura John, also known as Laura Grizzlypaws. Born in British Columbia, she is of St’át’imc descent. This multi-talented woman is a singer, songwriter, drummer, teacher, and advocate for the traditional language and culture of her people. She has said that when she does the Bear Dance, she is united with the spirit of the bear, hearing his prayer, feeling his pain. “I am his hope,” she has said. “I am his faith. He now dances upon the earth … where I leave my ancestral footprints.”
It was this dance that best conveyed the underlying spirit of the Gathering of Nations.