Stepping in a clockwise spiral, dancers fill the arena in a colorful swirl of traditional dress. Drum groups sing as they play thunderous rhythms that dancers instinctively anticipate. The ringing of thousands of bells and rattles affixed to dancers accentuate every step. More than 3,000 participants, representing all 565 U.S. and 220 Canada indigenous tribes, enter the Tingley Coliseum at the New Mexico State Fairgrounds. Billed as the largest such event in the world, the powerful Gathering of Nations Powwow in Albuquerque is felt as much as seen and heard, the percussion aligning tens of thousands of heartbeats in the audience during the two day annual event.
The Gathering of Nations began in 1983, when University of Albuquerque Dean of Students and club advisor Derek Mathews organized a powwow for his many students. The university closed the following year, but word of mouth spread about the powwow.
“It started as a way for our Native American students to share their cultures and feel closer to home,” says Mathews, now executive director of Gathering of Nations. “It was a unique opportunity to bring people from tribes all across the country and Canada together. The school closed, but people were already planning on coming into Albuquerque for the powwow, and it took on a life of its own.” [Read when hundreds of colorful hot-air baloons fill the skies of New Mexico.]
Mathews credits his background in media theater, education, and ethnic studies for organizing the Gathering of Nations. The growing event moved to the New Mexico State Fairgrounds, where it will be held again this year after 30 years at the University of New Mexico basketball arena. With the move back to its larger roots, the Gathering of Nations is able to add a new competition this year-the Horse and Rider Regalia Parade-during which riders and horses compete for attire, grooming, and showmanship awards. After the daytime events, live music features contemporary Native American bands playing everything from rock and reggae to country and traditional.
For participants such as Adeline Okanee of Taos Pueblo in New Mexico, the Gathering of Nations is a chance to see friends she’s made at powwows across the country, and for people to celebrate and share their diverse cultures. [Learn more about Taos Pueblo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.]
“We look forward to it all year,” Okanee says. “It’s a way for us to see friends and make new ones, and to feel the power and strength of the worldwide indigenous community. We’re still here and going strong, and it’s something to celebrate and share with the world.”