Gathering of Nations – The Largest Native American PowWow in the Americas

Gathering of Nations – The Largest Native American PowWow in the Americas

AT LAST!!!! We have always wanted to exhibit at the largest Native American PowWow in the Americas – The Gathering of Nations – and at last we had been accepted. It was exciting, yet everything seemed wrong. It was too far (Minnesota to New Mexico) and too costly. It didn’t matter. We very much wanted to be a part of this spectacular event….

The days preparing and packing, and days en route, were a Herculean effort. We head down the road, driving sixteen-eighteen hours with heavy head winds. We arrived shell-shocked and in need of a break. The following morning we were required to check in and set up. We are in Albuquerque, New Mexico a long way from home.

We spy some familiar faces and reacquaint ourselves with road friends. Kin Quitugua is a master falconer and he travels throughout the west promoting raptor awareness. He travels with an armada of raptors, providing education & understanding of these various birds of prey and their place in the ecosystem. It is not a project for the faint of heart. It requires tremendous dedication and effort. (The group is called HAWK QUEST and they are based out of Palmer, Colorado.)

Our first day at the Pow Wow is cold and rainy. Native Americans from all over the Americas have come to participate in the customs and dance. I have come as an amateur observer of anthropology and sociology and… human behavior. I’ve attended other native events so I’ve found old friends from previous years. This event represents an annual family reunion for the native nations that extends over nearly half the globe.

While at this event I spend twelve hours per day pursuing retail sales of our leather goods at Buffalo Billfold Company (leather wallets, leather purses, leather belts, etc…) to pay for the expenses and hopefully make a profit. When I can break away I watch the dancing competition. It is held in a coliseum that holds 17,000 people.

I was offered a “press pass” that would allow me to get a bit closer to the dance floor since they knew I might be writing about this event. I didn’t think much of it until I met a couple of seasoned reporters and journalists from national news organizations. Some of them had just spent the past three days at the White House. One is a nationally renown journalist. They had come to my exhibit and upon inquiry I realized who they were.

Saturday night was the culmination of the yearly event called the Grand Entry. It is the main event of the weekend. I scrambled from my exhibit and ran across the New Mexico state fair grounds to make sure I wouldn’t miss the finale’.

I had appropriate wrist bands that would allow me entrance to most everywhere….. but I realized that I had not gotten my “press pass”. I had incurred as much expense as anyone to be here so I was pretty certain I wouldn’t have too much problem gaining access.

I was quite wrong.

Levels of security in the arena were daunting and I was being asked to “move along” numerous times. I was offered no leniency. Every security officer was performing their task according to specific instructions. Ten minutes prior to the grand entry I found myself taking pictures one hundred yards from the dance floor. I was being chased and run off every time I stopped to find a special spot to photograph.

The clock was ticking and perchance I ran into Kin, my master falconer friend. Cameras from most major news networks were following his every move as he would signal the start of this event. He would lead the processional with his Bald Eagle. I asked him if he knew of safe refuge for me.

In past years I have provided Kin and his birds with buffalo leather jesses. Jesses are the leather strips that are fastened to the hawk’s legs to keep them from flying away. Kin ponders for a moment and says “duck into the Green Room across the hall and wait for me”. I quickly do as he says as I see more security coming down the hallway. The door swings open and I am in a room filled with a dozen of Kin’s assistants. They all have a background in some aspect of falconry. They are invaluable to Kin and this is the event of the year for them. Kin comes through the door to offer instruction to everyone. It is show time and it is a serious and anxious time. They are professional and confident. Outside in the coliseum, the drums are booming and vibrating the walls of our green room sanctuary.

After giving instructions to everyone involved, Kin turns to me and quietly says “stick close to me and don’t talk or stop to talk to anyone, we’ll get you into the arena”.

We are led swiftly by security through a hundred yards of obstacles. I just keep my head down and pass by an agent that just recently denied me entry. My small camera around my neck might appear to be covering my non-existent security clearance badge. When we are within twenty feet of the destination, pushing through a mass of humanity, I march pass one of the nationally known journalists that was at my exhibit. When he saw me passing by onto the stage floor, his eyes got large….. and without missing a beat got in line behind me!

The Native America drummers are drumming and it is being amplified in a deafening tone far beyond the coliseum. It is the pulse of tribal America and I struggle to believe where I have found myself.

My paranoia slowly has left me because I realize that there is no more security around me and I am where the eyes of the crowd are focused. Kin prepares his hooded Bald Eagle with a spray mist of water on the bird’s wings and over it’s body. Kin, in this time of intense excitement, creates a moment of quietude. Just prior to the heavy glare of spotlights and the start of the event, he removes the hood from this majestic eagle. Often times I am a skeptic and yet there is some sort of genuine communication and common bond between them. Kin strokes and calms the bird. Then, they both are ready.

The heartbeat of humanity that the drums are emulating stop in an instant and the crowd of 17,000 are brought to attention. The bright lights are brought up…brighter than even before and Kin and the eagle take center stage on a floor that covers perhaps three acres. The arena floor will soon be filled with thousands of Native dancers from Canada, U.S.A. Central and South America.

The grand entry begins and the spectacle of dancing and drumming vibrates through your body. You come to realize that these are the people that have always populated this continent. These people have a serious understanding of their identity and they are here to reaffirm this belief. It is overwhelming. I am privileged to be in the centered warmth of a society that is validating their existence on this continent and their space in our world. The lights get brighter, the drumming can be felt in your diaphragm. The dancers continue to enter the dance floor in exponential numbers. Perhaps thousands are now on the floor as they circle in this meaningful assembly.

The eagle is held securely by the leather jesses made especially for moments like this. Gratitude and appreciation abound to have been a witness to this remarkable event.

Bill Keitel

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