ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. ? Audience members watched in awe as thousands of dancers swirled and bounced in a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes, to heart-pounding drums, and voices raised high during the 19th Annual Gathering of Nations Pow wow, April 25-27.
The event highlighted the culture and heritage of Indigenous peoples from both Americas and around the world, but is also a showcase for Native talent offering competitions in various categories of dance, song, drumming and a beauty pageant.
Canada walked away with top honors this year claiming both the Miss Indian World title and the Northern Drum Championship.
"I'm just in shock and overwhelmed right now," exclaimed Tia Smith (Cayuga) from Ontario, Canada, who won the Miss Indian World 2003 crown.
She said meeting all the girls was her most enjoyable part of the experience and feels she was not the most talented, only lucky.
"All of the girls could have done this job very well," she said.
The Northern Drum Champions were High Noon from Hobbema, Canada, whose lead singer is Ted Noon.
Departing Miss Indian World, Ke Aloha May Cody Alo (White Mountain Apache/Hawaiian) plans to continue to be a voice for the people.
"I feel that it's important for us, as Native people, to represent ourselves because we do have a vested interest in our resources, in our lands and our people" she said.
"It has been a great honor ? a great privilege, but also a great deal of responsibility. I loved every minute of it." Alo said the experience of just being at the Gathering of Nations. "I had no idea what to expect," she said. "I remember standing in the Pit seeing all the dancers and it literally brought tears to my eyes. It made me so proud of my Native heritage. It made me so proud of who I am."
According to Melonie Mathews, a Gathering of Nations organizer, the event has grown tremendously every year since its inception in 1983. "It started in a little, itsy-bitsy, tiny gym at the University of Albuquerque, which no longer exists" she explained.
"We promote the best sides and aspects of Native American Indian culture" Mathews continued, "both on North American soil as well as world wide ? it's brought attention to Indigenous Peoples worldwide."
"A few years ago, we had a contestant from Guatemala, which was our first contestant that came from south of the border ? the political border," Mathews continued.
"Indian people don't recognize those (borders) and even though we come from other countries that have perimeters of settlers of other places ? we acknowledge ourselves as brothers and sisters" she said.
Mathews said the powwow has many people of mixed heritage participating. She believes that many tribes who may not be federally recognized are being focused upon at the Gathering as Indian people, but also felt that for the non-Indian people, the powwow is a monumental experience in cultural sharing and education.
Ralph Zotigh, lead singer for the Zotigh Singers and this year's head Gourd dancer, says he was happy to be a part of the powwow.
He felt the powwow is a family thing. "Here, children have a chance to reflect on their grandparents' (ways)," he said, (especially) when they hear stories from their elders ? they can relate."
"I want our children to find out their identity and feel a sense of belonging to their families and make friends from other tribes," said Zotigh.
Although he is positive about the powwow experience, he is not happy about the commercialization of powwows. He explained that competition between children for prize money is not good because there is only one winner and the loser will learn poor sportsmanship.
An unusual entrant for this year's Drum Competition was the all-female group, Muskawa down from Fort Nelson, British Columbia, whose lead singer, Crystal Ryall is only 17 years old.
Ryall has been dancing since she was 2 years old and has been drumming for six years. She said she got involved with Muskawa when she moved from Merritt, British Columbia, where she was second lead singer on the Nicola Valley Daughters and Sons.
As lead singer, she knows it's a big responsibility.
"You have to be in control," she stated directly. "You have to be thinking on the spot, if something happens you have to know what to do. If someone comes to you with tobacco, you have to know what to do."
Ryall said all the songs have been given to the drum. She feels she is too young yet to have the experience of receiving songs. She also knows singing with the drum is healing her and the others.
"I know that when they are my age, they will be doing as well as I am," she explained. "They will have self-esteem and respect for themselves and that is important. You have to respect yourself before you can respect anyone else.'
Although Muskawa received some negative response from other groups, she felt the drum is doing something very good for her people.
"We know what we're doing is right, it's not wrong," the teenager said with resolve.