ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (CN) — Behind a thin cloud of fragrant smoke, dancers move side to side in a hard, bobbing rhythm to the beat of ceramic-sided drums. Feathered headdresses swaying and bobbing with every step, the seed pods on the dancers' anklets shaking a counterpoint to the drum, they recreate and continue a rhythm that goes back centuries. Behind the dancers, a Jumbotron shows the counterclockwise spiral of shawl dancers filling a stadium floor.
After two years, the Gathering of Nations returned to Albuquerque.
The world's largest pow wow took place in New Mexico this past weekend to celebrate in a blend of traditional culture and modern technology. People from 560 Native American tribes from around the United States and more than 200 Indigenous tribes from Canada attended the Gathering of Nations, an event which includes the Miss Indian World pageant as well as dancing, drumming, singing and competitions.
The Gathering of Nations began in 1983 as a pow wow at the University of New Mexico, and over 39 years has grown to become an international event. In 2019, more than 80,000 visitors attended the pow wow from the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. But due to the pandemic, the 2020 and 2021 events were held online, with Zoom dance gatherings and video presentations.
For the return to a live event in 2022, there were echoes of the pandemic's influence across the weekend. Cheyenne Kippenberger, crowned Miss Indian World in 2019 and serving through 2020 and 2021, appeared in a video retrospective and spoke about the challenges of making public appearances virtually over the course of the pandemic. Dancers wore masks decorated to match their regalia while off the performance floor, though most slipped them off for performances.
The connection to both traditional and modern ideas extended to the event's stages. Musical groups such as One Way Sky, an alt-rock group from the Gila River Indian Community and Tohono O’odham Nation performed contemporary music for the gathering crowds. And on the pow wow floor, groups such as Indin Hill mixed traditional chants with English lyrics that wouldn't be out of place in a Top 40 pop song.
Los Angeles-based artist Votan set up in the Traders Market with displays of stickers, shirts, and art prints that blend famous modern iconography with native themes and images. Chibi-styled figures in native dress, familiar images such as Rosy the Riveter and Bart Simpson are redesigned to highlight issues faced in Native American life.
To Votan, it's important that people see themselves in his art. “We grew up without seeing much we could connect with. So artists of my generation, especially now that we're having kids, we're looking for a way to show them themselves. We're trying to give them something to hold on to, a connection to the world but also their own heritage.”
Others also expressed the importance of Native American visibility and a desire for their culture to be honored every day, not only at festivals and pow wows. Marian Stillman, who came to Albuquerque from Northern California to cheer on her grandchildren in the dances, remembered when her children were learning to dance in the 1990s.
“They would learn the dances to the drummers or tapes of drums,” Stillman recalls. “But then they would come home and dance in the kitchen to the beat of songs on the radio. Janet Jackson or Bon Jovi. The rhythm was in them, and so they danced.”
Stillman has been attending the Gathering of Nations every time she could for almost 25 years. “I brought my children to dance. Now my grandchildren dance. I hope their children will dance. It's a time for our past and future to connect and for us to focus as a family on where we come from and where we want to go.”