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Gathering of Nations Report From Inside the Pit

We rolled into Albuquerque Friday morning at 3 a.m., getting a late start out of southwest Oklahoma on I-40 West. But the time didn’t matter, nor the lack of meaningful sleep. It had been two years since my household had been to Gathering of Nations, and we were ready, as I expressed in a previous article. Not even a warning ticket from the Texas State Police for a burned out license plate light would discourage us. Overall, my little family had a chance to see the Friday afternoon and all of the Saturday sessions.

Friday—Before Grand Entry

There were many things about Gathering that we knew ahead of time—long line for tickets, occasional difficulty in finding a parking space, etc.—but still we were not disheartened. My household purchased their tickets through the GON website, so that eliminated one problem ahead of time. Even when I saw the line for tickets being at least 50 people deep on Friday morning, I still wasn’t concerned. My wife Maya dropped me off—after being turned away by the parking attendant—to obtain my press credentials for the day. Then I made my way over to the Will Call side of the ticket trailer outside of the Pit.

To my surprise, the Will Call booth was at least 30 people deep. When it was my turn to get to the ticket window, I inquired if there was going to be improvements for next year. The attendant said they were working on emailed printable tickets with bar codes for next year, but they were not finalized yet.

By the time I had the bracelets for at-will entry for the family, it was 11:30 a.m., and two of our children needed their dance contest numbers. The corridor at the top of the Pit was already filling with dancers, spectators and vendors at tables. This also included singers holding up their latest CD’s for sale, and GON program vendors. We then walked down toward the bottom toward the speaker stand and found our seats, stowing our bags, cedar boxes and other items to get us through the day. It was then my job to register the kids for contest.

There was one large green sign outside to let dancers and singers know where to register. But with a remodeling of the Pit, finding the actual hallway where registration took place took me a while. After asking around, I found it. I signed up the kids and then found my oldest, Chado (age 8), where Maya had him ready for Grand Entry at the top of the Pit. After attaching his number, he made his way down toward the bottom, joining the multitudes of dancers on the floor…

Note for next year: Leave hotel room much earlier.

Friday Noon Grand Entry

Grand Entry at Gathering of Nations is truly a sight to behold. Dancers come from multiple sides from the top of the Pit, descend into the arena and begin to dance once their feet hit the bottom. With Northern and Southern drums alternating songs, there is a pounding of the drum that goes straight through the soul. By the time at least four drums have sung, the arena where the University of New Mexico Lobos play is full of eagle feathers, sparkling cut beadwork, jingles and bells.

After Grand Entry, a Flag Song, Invocation and Victory Song were sung. Contests on Friday afternoon included youth, teen, and Golden Age categories, with intermittent jokes and stories from the GON emcees.

One statement made by long-time GON emcee Sammy Tone-Kei White rings true with many people: “Eat outside; it’s cheaper.” Case in point: the UNM hot dogs inside the Pit were $4 each. A hot dog at one of the food vendors outside the Pit, Garcia’s, had $4 hot dogs, but with a bag of chips thrown in. A much better bargain, certainly.

Saturday Noon Grand Entry

Back for the second day, with much less stress. Bracelets for re-entry—check. Kids’ contest numbers—check. Press pass stamp for Day 2—check.

Saturday was different in that we had our daughter Kateri, age 6, dancing in Tiny Tots for the last year. Her contest would immediately follow Grand Entry.

Grand Entry had an increase in intensity from the day before, with the Northern drums reaching new octaves than thought possible, and the Southern drums creating thunder out of thin air. After the formalities of the day, then it was time for Tiny Tots. Seeing the youngest dance to carry on the ways of their ancestors will make anyone smile. Following this, the youth, teen, and golden age contests continued, with hand drum singing in between the contests. These songs spoke of finding love, love lost, and love for the time being.

One moment during the afternoon session that stands out was when the crowd called for a second song during the junior boys’ traditional category. Thankfully, the boys had the opportunity to continue dancing, and the crowd got to see the next generation of traditional and straight dancers.

In between the afternoon and evening sessions, there was a gourd dance session led by Zotigh Singers. This gave Maya and me an opportunity to dance with not only Chado and Kateri but Kateri’s twin brother Matthias. When all of us can dance together, it is a special feeling of pride that cannot be matched.

Saturday Night…and Sunday Morning

As soon as gourd dance ended, the Saturday night session kicked off. Between regular contests and special contests, there is so much to see. If a first-time attendee wants to see dancing, Saturday night is the night. However, be warned: Find a coffee vendor, because it’s going to be a late night. The contests only start getting good around 11 p.m.

After Grand Entry, there was a smoke dance exhibition that featured youth dancers. It was then so well received by the crowd that an encore was demanded. Audience participation was also allowed, and was enjoyed by many.

Saturday night is also the night when Miss Indian World is announced, as their pageant takes place on the Thursday before GON. This year’s winner was MarjorieTahbone, Inupiaq/Kiowa, of Nome, Alaska, who will represent all of Indian Country for the next year.

Several hours of contest began after the Miss Indian World finals. These included a special grass dance contest by head man dancer Buck Spotted Tail, and a special jingle dress contest by head lady dancer by Leah Omeasoo. Following these were the regular contests, and then a special traditional contest by the Tim White Eyes family.

It was then announced that there was a tie in the Northern Drum category. Northern Cree and Midnite Express then alternated in the center of the arena, singing their best, with Northern Cree taking it all in that category.

In the course of the evening, I also had a chance to indulge in one of my favorite New Mexico entrees: the green chili cheeseburger from Blake’s Lotaburger. Each bite had a slight burn, but it was worth it!


Sunday, this family did nothing but take it easy. This included swimming with the kids and taking in the Nizhoni Days Powwow at the University of New Mexico Student Union. This student-run powwow was non-competition, but yet drew a full house, featuring several drums and an appearance from GON emcee Reuben Littlehead. The frybread was also student-made, and it was quite tasty. There were also Pueblo bread vendors a-plenty. We capped the day off hanging out in Old Town, seeing the sights.

I must sadly report that one of my household’s favorite post-Gathering traditions, the Sunday brunch buffet at Garduno’s, will no longer be a post-Gathering tradition. Our favorite Garduno’s location near San Mateo and Academy is no longer open. Instead, we went to a different Garduno’s near the Winrock Mall and were sadly disappointed. There was no brunch buffet; the service was too slow; and the entrees were not to our expectations. If anyone went there because of my pre-Gathering story, I sincerely apologize.

I-40 East called us home on Monday. However, we didn’t load up on t-shirts or other souvenirs from Gathering. Instead, we brought home something much more important: the memories of seeing our children dance with the people of this continent’s many Nations.