ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — As soon as the music started playing, 17-year-old Tristan Joe said his mind went blank and he began dancing in front of thousands of people in Tingley Coliseum.
“I don’t think about anything,” said Joe, a student at Navajo Prep in Farmington. “All my emotions go away. I just focus on the song, and that’s what carries me.”
Like many of the other dancers who participated in the powwow dancing competitions during the Gathering of Nations on Saturday, Joe was in face paint and dressed in colorful Native American regalia that friends and family had made for him.
He wears it and dances at least three times a month and comes from a family of Native dancers.
“It’s just a way to express myself. I dance for myself and I dance for my family. That’s why I dance,” he said. “It’s in the blood. My whole family, they all dance. All the guys are fancy dancers, that’s where I get it from.”
The dancing competitions were a major draw at the 34th annual Gathering of Nations, which is billed as the world’s largest powwow. The event in Albuquerque was held at Expo New Mexico this year after years at the University of New Mexico’s basketball arena, the Pit. The event started Thursday and ended around midnight Saturday when the final dancing awards were scheduled to be presented.
Organizers said more than 3,000 dancers representing over 500 Native tribes from the U.S. and Canada took part.
Another important part of the Native regalia are the feathers the dancers wear.
While the youngest dancers use fake feathers, the boys and girls are gifted feathers as they grow up and do things to make their families proud, said Matthew Sheka, a 41-year-old from Window Rock, Ariz., on the Navajo Nation who has been dancing at powwows since he was 2.
Sheka said it’s common for dancers to first receive hawk feathers and then, as they continue to grow, they get golden eagle feathers before moving on to bald eagle and a white, black-tipped eagle feather once they become adults.
“I have to earn my feathers. I get mine through dancing and doing good in school,” said Ira High Elk, a 15-year-old from Bismarck, N.D., who is part Lakota and part Hidatsa Indian. “It’s nothing in particular… I try hard in school and help people whenever I can. Just be kind to people.”
Carolina High Elk, Ira’s mother, brought two of her children to the Gathering of Nations to dance. She said she encourages it because it promotes a healthy lifestyle and helps their culture live on.
“They’re trying to carry on our traditions and our culture, keep it alive,” she said.
While some of the vendors selling Indian crafts and other items at the event took issue with how spread out the fairgrounds area is, which they said made it harder to attract attention, in the coliseum many attendees praised the new location. They said the larger dance floor and more floor space gave the dancing an ambiance more akin to a traditional powwow.
“At the Pit, it was a lot more like we were putting on an event. We were putting on a show and going on stage for people to look at us,” said Jason Whitehouse, who was the master of ceremonies for several events. “Here it feels like more of a powwow to come and just dance.”