Posted by Oteil Burbridge Gathering of Nations 2018

This past weekend, Jess and I were honored to attend the Gathering of Nations in Albuquerque, New Mexico. With over 365 tribes from the USA and 225 from Canada, Gathering of Nations is the largest Native American powwow in the world. Having both Cherokee and Seminole ancestry myself I was really excited to be able to be there. I have never been to a PowWow before, much less one on this scale. DJ Logic first told me about Gathering a few years ago; Logic has been going for the last 5 years. When Logic texted me recently and said that he had talked to Derek and Dr. Lita Mathews, the two people that have been putting on this event for the last 35 years, about me participating I was elated. I had already checked out their website and had seen pictures and videos of the event so it was starting to build up some whopping anticipation.

I had always been fascinated by the music and the fashion of the different tribes and was more than ready to see it close up in person. I asked my wife Jess to come with me since her great grandmother on her mom’s side was full blooded Cherokee as you can clearly see when you look at her. Jess is always game for a new adventure so she was ready to go. My good friends in the band the Nth Power were also playing it and getting to sit in with them was an added highlight.

My friend Jenny Shuman who is Native American and made my gorgeous beaded guitar straps also made the trip with her husband Brady. She had been to powwows before but never one this big. I was really grateful to get to experience it with them and for them to finally meet Jess in person. I knew we were all in for a powerful spiritual experience but it was much stronger and more profound than I could have predicted. A true sweetheart of a man named Ron Marquez picked me up from the airport when I arrived in Albuquerque. You can imagine my surprise when I sat down in the passenger seat and the very first thing I saw was a stealie staring back at me from the dashboard of his van. What better omen could I have to start the trip?

As soon as I got there I was overwhelmed trying to take it all in. We entered this big basketball arena that was packed with people dressed in more kinds of regalia than I could convey with words. People compete for prizes with their outfits, drumming and dancing. There is also the Miss Indian World Pageant which has become the largest Cultural Pageant for indigenous American people. I love that the women were not judged on their beauty, which they all possessed, but on their talents and gifts. 

As I walked through the arena for the first time my blood was coursing through me at a breakneck pace. I wanted to take pictures of so many people, especially the tiny baby asleep on a traditional Indian cradle board while the loudest drumming, singing and dancing was taking place, but I wanted to be respectful so I resisted. I laughed when I thought of Jess and I tiptoeing around the house while our son Nigel naps.

I was captivated by this one type of dance called the Chicken Dance. It is so intense.

I was a dancer in my teens and this is one of the coolest forms of movement I have ever seen. These men have the most intense looks on their faces while they are doing these dances. You feel the immense pride and joy in the celebration of their heritage being kept alive in the face of hundreds of years of attempted cultural genocide. 

There was a part of the event called the Grand Entrance where all the contestants from all the tribes entered the arena in a massive ceremony. The prayers spoken to the Creator in native language and English were so beautiful and dispelled any ridiculous notions that these people’s religion was in any way inferior to anyone else’s on the planet. The MC’s asked the finalists in the dance competitions to say their names, tribe and whatever else they wanted to include in their native languages. It was so moving to hear these young men speak in their native tongues with varying degrees of difficulty and expertise. It reminded me that I should learn at least a few phrases in the Igbo (Nigerian) language. 

As the ceremony unfolded the scale of it was overwhelming. There were almost 4,000 dancers on the floor and I swear I could feel the ancestors of these people watching the ceremony. How could they resist the pull of their people celebrating their old ways in such a grand fashion. The variety of styles of the outfits were an explosion of colors and textures. This combined with the constant movement of the people and the sounds of the drums and singing transported us to another dimension. I saw America in a whole new way. Even the names of places I grew up hearing about, like Omaha, Mississippi, Tennessee and Alabama finally were in context. The word “catharsis” doesn’t begin to cover it. Every cell in my body was quickened. Whatever Indian DNA I have was lit up like a Christmas tree. I looked over at Jenny Shuman and tears were streaming down her face. I teared up myself at least three times in reaction to the powerful singing. I thought it was the women singing but when I was seated right next to the drummers at one point I saw that it was the men that were hitting these unbelievably high notes. I stuck my fingers in my ear to try it myself and couldn’t even get close. 

Bless you and thank you to DJ Logic for turning me on to this event and to Derek and Dr. Lita Mathews for making Jess and I feel so welcome. I certainly hope to do this every year. And a special thanks to Dr. Lita for giving me my third Eagle Feather. For those of you that don’t know, it is a high honor to be given one of those by an indigenous American. I plan to make this event every year if I can and I encourage you to check it out too. It is truly an amazing thing to behold.