Gathering of Nations

The Men’s Fancy Feather Dance, Gathering of Nations 2016

The opening moment actually takes my breath away. The first drumbeat initiates a men’s dance of such color and fervor I can think of nothing to compare it to. A blur of motion blows past me — men spinning, dipping, stepping eloquently to the magnificent beat of an eight-person drum circle. Each one of these dancers is a work of art in his regalia and style of movement, but collectively they pulse like a beating heart, for several minutes, until the explosive drumbeat ceases into silence, the dancers hold their final pose and the crowd erupts in applause.

This is my first powwow. In the first three minutes, I’m speechless and nearly moved to tears.

I find out later that powwows don’t usually begin with a men’s Fancy Feather dance, but this year’s Gathering of Nations in Albuquerque, New Mexico has begun with this special performance in honor of the late Spike Draper, Diné Nation Posthumous Head Man Dancer for the two-day event. What a beginning — what a moment I won’t ever forget.

The Gathering of Nations is North America’s largest powwow, with more than 3,000 dancers from over 700 tribes and First Nations. I’ve arrived here for the two-day event on a personal mission. After writing about culture and life around Southeast Asia for the past four years, it’s time to dive back into the heritage of my own country and learn — or perhaps I should say re-learn — about the culture of the indigenous people and first nations of North America. It’s clear from being here, and from being a lot older and a little bit wiser about the world, that all of the American history lessons I sat through in school were narrowly-focused and vastly incomplete.

Gathering of Nations 2016

Representing Zia, Ute and Diné nations of Albuquerque, New Mexico

What I experience during the Gathering of Nations is as educational as it is enchanting. Three thousand dancers share the floor during the magnificent Grand Entry — an hour-long procession of all ages and nations, repeated four times in two days. The Grand Entries are followed by hours upon hours of competitive and community dancing, drumming and singing into the night and throughout the following day and night again. Jingle, Fancy Shawl, Buckskin, Grass, Cloth, Straight, Traditional, Gourd, Hand Drum … all new to me, and profound in heritage and significance. And beautiful — so completely, exquisitely beautiful that my words are futile in describing the experience of being here.

Gathering of Nations Grand Entry

Saturday’s first Grand Entry, Gathering of Nations 2016

I watch, I listen, I learn. I ask questions. I un-learn. I re-learn. I adjust the words I use, I change the questions I ask. I try. I hope. I am so grateful to be here. I am just one person, but I am one person. One step. One step closer to the truth. Past, future, here, now.

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Click any photo in the gallery below to view as a slideshow.

Special thanks to James Korenchen of James Korenchen Public Relations for providing me with an all-access media pass to photograph the Gathering of Nations 2016.

These photos, and many others not shown here, will be given to the Gathering of Nations organization. Please do not use these images without my consent. If you’re pictured here and would like a copy of your photo, please get in touch by leaving a comment below. I’d be more than happy to send you your portrait.

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WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge: Face

31 comments

  1. Wow, just wow! Exquisite photographs Kelly – every one a gem. You captured the heart of the event and of the people. It’s exactly the kind of thing I love to attend. How wonderful for you that you got to go.
    Alison

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Alison! That means a lot to me because the event was truly special. An awakening in a way. I’ll be writing more as I learn more. There may be some opportunities to attend similar events here around Vancouver. I’ll let you know if I come across any. Thanks so much for your thoughts.

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  2. What a beautiful, heartwarming event! To give those tribes and First Nations a stage at such scale is indeed very commendable. It helps raise awareness among young generation about the indigenous people so they’ll have better, wiser perspectives not only on their homeland, but also on the world. Thanks for sharing this, Kelly.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Bama! You’ve pinpointed it exactly. Raising awareness is vital — even for my generation. In tandem with going to this event, I’ve been reading “The Earth Shall Weep” — and now my entire understanding of American history is in the process of being rebuilt. A wiser perspective on my homeland, as you say. Better late then never. Thanks for your comment!

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  3. I can’t say my breath was taken away just reading, but I do have goosebumps! Your photos and portraits are beautiful and touching. The event itself must be spectacular, but your angle is even cooler: learning and re-learning about your own North American culture in the way you learned about something foreign. I make the mistake over and over again of deeming other cultures and countries more interesting than my own, and it’s something I’m working on changing. Wonderful post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, Lex! I’m guilty of the same mistake, and never thought going to this event would leave such a lasting impression. I don’t know if it’s age or traveling or what that’s helped me engage more with my own country but it’s been surprisingly rewarding to look a little deeper. So I’m gonna keep looking! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. What a wonderful rich heritage, being reborn. We’ve seen much of it on the local level as we have travelled the country. Great photos, Kelly. We’d love to be there with you. –Curt

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      1. Many different reasons for the rebirth, but one of the strangest is Indian Casinos. Many of them have put money back into an emphasis on their heritage. One of Peggy and my favorite activities in relation to Native American heritage is finding and photographing petroglyphs. I am positively taken by the art. –Curt

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  5. Gawd, woman, have I missed your posts. And this…well, this hits home more than you can know. I have an old B&W photograph in which my mother stands as a two-year-old child. Behind her is her mother, her mother’s mother, and her mother’s mother’s mother–this woman is full-blooded Native American. I wonder if that would allow me to slip into some buckskins and join in these festivities. All your photos are just brilliant. Did you use flash? High speed? I love the ones of the guy with stripes down one side of his face and dots on the other…I think I looked like that in a past life.

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    1. Aw, thanks Badfish! It’s always so rewarding to receive thoughts like yours after posting something that has truly touched my heart. Amazing that you have that B&W photo! How very cool! Sounds like you relate to this culture in perhaps more more ways than one. You should explore that for sure. I didn’t use a flash at all — thought it might be distracting to the dancers and the light was sufficient without. But I did shoot at about ISO 5000 in aperture priority to reduce the depth of field as much as possible since there was so much signage and noise in the background. I’m pretty happy with the results. I shot 2100 photos in 36 hours and already want to go back!

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      1. Wow…ISO 5000…amazingly sharp images for such a high ISO! 2100 shots seems a lot, but I think I could easily shoot that many shots in a couple days on something like that. Did you wear pigtails while shooting, so you’d look like a local?

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  6. Wow Kelly! These are absolutely excellent photos … really. If you’re as good with a compass as you are with a camera, you can throw away your GPS. It only takes one event like this to make it starkly clear that there’s wonderful stuff to see here in the US as well. We’ve spent a good deal of time abroad, but we’re never unhappy when we can visit a part of the States that’s new to us. And I must admit to be a bit embarrassed when I see an event like this and say: “Why on earth have I never seen this?” Thanks for a great post. BTW, you may have noticed that things have been quiet at Gallivance lately. Terri blew here knee out and had to have a total knee replacement surgery recently, so as you can imagine, her recovery and care have kept us both pretty busy. She’s progressing well, but it’s slow going. We haven’t forgotten about our friends and look forward to things getting back to normal. In the meantime, thanks for continuing to follow along. ~James

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow! First and foremost, best wishes to Terri for a fast and full recovery! So sorry to hear about her knee! Take it slow — the world will be waiting whenever you’re ready. 🙂 Thank you so much for your compliment about my photography! I agree with you about wondering why we’ve never seen some events like this one. It wouldn’t have been on my radar had I not been specifically seeking out a powwow experience, which is not something I do every day. But this is what I love about blogging — sharing this experience has sparked the interest for readers like you, and even if you don’t get there you’ll at least have seen the amazing culture through my photos and we’re all one step closer to understanding each other. Totally awesome. Thanks for your thoughts and again, take it easy and get well soon!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. “I watch, I listen, I learn. I ask questions. I un-learn. I re-learn. I adjust the words I use, I change the questions I ask. I try.” The best philosophy to have and one we constantly strive to remember in our travels. Gorgeous, stunning photos!

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  8. These photos are beyond beautiful. And so many of us need to “unlearn” what we were taught in grade school and experience this rich culture of ours as it truly is. You’ve started us off on the right path.

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    1. Laura! YES! I’d love to send you your images! Your dance was absolutely amazing. I’m sending the images to you in four emails to your email address. Blessings and respect to you as well. I hope to see you again at next year’s Gathering of Nations. Thanks for getting in touch! ~Kelly

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  9. Dear Kelly,
    Thank you for this lovely coverage of an event few of us will ever get to experience. I find your website soulful and insightful. It fits well within the direction of my website and blog, “Finding Ourselves at Home in the World,” so I’m reblogging this post to introduce them to your blog. I hope you will stop by and visit my site.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Rhonda, thank you so much for your thoughtful comments about my story on the Gathering of Nations and my blog in general. The Gathering of Nations was a powerful event, as I’m sure you gathered from the photos. I was really moved and will never forget the experience. Thank you for sharing the story on your blog. Through telling the story and sharing the experience, my hope is that more people will learn about Native American culture and its tremendous importance in the world. Thanks again! ~Kelly

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