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Dancers from 700 tribes open Gathering of Nations

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About 2,800 dancers from more than 700 tribes filled the floor of the Pit – a colorful mélange of feathers, beads, embroidery and sequins, whirling to Indian drums and traditional singing as the 33rd annual Gathering of Nations got underway Friday.

Tommy Draper Sr., of Fruitland, leads Friday's Grand Entry of the Gathering of Nations. Draper was standing in for his late son, Spike Draper, a 15-time dance champion, who died in an accident last year. This year's powwow has been dedicated to the memory of the deceased champion. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Tommy Draper Sr., of Fruitland, leads Friday’s Grand Entry of the Gathering of Nations. Draper was standing in for his late son, Spike Draper, a 15-time dance champion, who died in an accident last year. This year’s powwow has been dedicated to the memory of the deceased champion. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

For Tommy Draper Sr., a Fancy Dancer from Fruitland, the Grand Entry ceremony had particular significance.

He was standing in as “head man dancer” for his late son, Tommy Draper Jr., better known as Spike Draper, a 15-time champion dancer who died last year in an accident while breaking a horse.

This year’s powwow, the largest gathering in the world of Native Americans and indigenous people, has been dedicated to the memory of Spike Draper, the first time such an honor has been bestowed in the history of the Gathering of Nations.

“It’s kind of hard on the family, but we had to honor my late son,” said Draper Sr. “I told my kids and my wife that we have to be there, we have to do this. The people who dance at the powwow are my family, too. I’ve known some of them for many years, so it makes me feel good that I have family wherever I go.”

The elder Draper, 67, said he began native dancing in the 1950s and later taught his son. “Tommy learned from me, but then he began picking up things on his own, different footwork and styles. He was very smooth.”

The dancing performances and competition in 34 separate categories are only part of the three-day event, which also includes the crowning of the new Miss Indian World, Native American musical performances, Native American and Southwest foods, and more than 800 Native American artists and artisans showing and selling paintings, pottery, jewelry, drums, clothing, textiles and more.

People waiting in line to buy tickets for the annual Gathering of Nations are reflected in the mirrored sunglasses of New York resident Sunshines on Face, a member of the Setalcott tribe of Long Island. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

People waiting in line to buy tickets for the annual Gathering of Nations are reflected in the mirrored sunglasses of New York resident Sunshines on Face, a member of the Setalcott tribe of Long Island. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

The 15,000-seat arena was at capacity Friday morning, as were nearly all the surrounding parking areas. People from throughout the United States and Canada braved chilly temperatures, intermittent showers and long lines to attend the event.

More than 30,000 people from 118 countries had tuned in to watch the morning events via live Internet streaming, while millions more followed on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, said Paul Gowder, chief executive officer of Powwows.com, which was broadcasting the event live.

Rio Rancho High School student, Alliana Atencio, who is part Navajo and Jemez, was decked out in full regalia as she waited to perform the jingle dress dance, which she originally learned from her mother. Though only 16, she is already a veteran dancer at the Gathering of Nations. “It’s a way for me to express my emotions, and connect with my family and my culture,” she said.

Even people who have experienced other powwows elsewhere in the country were awestruck by the spectacle.

Chris Sutton, who was visiting from Michigan and is Oklahoma Choctow, called the Grand Entry “remarkable and very powerful.” His sister, Alana Sutton, said it was a bit overwhelming, particularly the sheer number of dancers. “I just wasn’t expecting this.”

Air Force Col. Kathryn Tate, who is stationed at Kirtland Air Force Base, and her husband, Daryl Webb, were attending their first powwow. The couple, from the Pittsburgh area, said they were taken by the beauty of the dancing and the regalia.

“To bring all these nations together and allow us who are not tribal members to learn more about their cultures is just beautiful,” said Tate. “Just the work that goes into putting all of this on is incredible,” added Webb.

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