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.
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.
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.
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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