By Brian Nixon, Special to ASSIST News Service
ALBUQUERUQUE, NEW MEXICO (ANS – April 30, 2017) — In 1957 famed cowboy singer Roy Rogers and his wife Dale Evans performed at the opening of Tingley Coliseum in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Sixty years later one of Albuquerque’s largest events found a new home at the coliseum: the Gathering of Nations.
When you think about it it’s an interesting contrast: a Hollywood cowboy kicked off Tingley Coliseum’s life, and now Native Americans are giving the venue new life.
Tingley Coliseum sits on the grounds of Expo New Mexico, the land designated for the State Fair. The original grounds were purchased in 1938 using money from President Franklin Roosevelt’s WPA funds. The current stadium was built in 1957 and named after businessman and former state governor, Clyde Tingley.
Walking in to Tingley Coliseum for the 2017 Gathering of Nations was an invigorating experience. Since the University of New Mexico didn’t renew the contract for the world’s largest Native American powwow at the Pit (where UNM Lobo’s basketball teams play), organizers found a new home across town .
Upon entrance of Expo New Mexico there were a few obvious areas of improvement. One, there’s more room for the vendors. With grass, more buildings and space, the Gathering had an open and inviting atmosphere; elbowroom energized the eager crowd and retailers. Though I’d think some of the vendors would like to be closer to the main stage, the expanded room enabled the vendors to enlarge their horizons.
Two, there weren’t stairs to contend with for the dancers. At Tingley Coliseum the massive ingress called the Grand Entrance (where dancers from across the Nation enter the stadium) didn’t have the formidable stairs that round the Pit. At the Pit dancers had to descend and ascend stairs to enter and exit the main floor. At Tingley the dancers entered from the north and south wings, making the entrance easier for them (at least it seemed to me). After the opening ceremony, I heard a few of the dancers say there was more dancing room at Tingley, affording them more space to move.
Three, all outdoor events — concerts and performances — had scenery. There were trees, grass, and adobe building about, whereas at the Pit the outdoor events were situated on concrete with no nature near. Expo New Mexico afforded the guests a more natural setting.
My only complaint is that the weather was cold. It actually snowed a tad while my wife and I were at the Gathering. But weather is something event organizers can’t control. Also a couple of vendors I normally visit were not in attendance. But again, this is something the Gathering can’t dictate.
But that’s enough about the venue; now on to the event itself.
Without a doubt the Gathering of Nations is a stirring event, one that must be experienced live to understand its full impact. With over 2,500 native dancers and singers representing 500 plus tribes from across North America all dancing and singing in immaculate costumes and dress on the floor of an arena is something to behold. I’ve been many times to the Gathering and on each occasion when the Grand Entrance occurs (the moment when all the dancers descend from differing positions in the arena), I can’t help but get a little choked up.
This year was no different.
Pre-ceremony music greeted us as we entered the stadium. Two flutists—decked out in full regalia—performed beautiful music, a Navajo singer sang traditional songs, followed by a funk band, the GroovaLottos, from the East coast. The diversity of music showcased the variety of native music and culture.
The opening ceremony began with a Pueblo man running from the old venue at the Pit to Tingley Coliseum (roughly 8 or so miles). This is akin to a spiritual cleansing, an awakening to something new. The runner carried a staff with Eagle feathers. The drum group, War Paint, sang and played as the runner entered the stadium. People cheered.
After role call, the Grand Entrance began with dancers entering the floor space as differing singing/drum groups from across the nation played. It was a powerful moment. Cameras clicked, video’s rolled, and people stood in amazement as the dancers in their magnificent costumes paraded the stadium like peacocks of grace and beauty. Prayers were offered, Mayor Richard Berry spoke, and more dancing commenced. It was the start of a new era for the Gathering of Nations.
After the opening ceremony, I headed outside for food and fun.
As I roamed the grounds and stopped by the various vendors I was impressed with the scope of North America’s indigenous cultures and people. The range and variety of vendors at the Gathering was notable (from health and fitness to goods, ministries, and services).
Two vendors stuck out. The first is called Power Plate. Dr. Caroline Trapp of Physicians for Responsible Medicine and food historian, Dr. Lois Ellen Frank, headed the team at the Power Plate booth. Power Plate is a program to offset diabetes. To do so, the physicians encourage the return to ancestral plant-based diets. According to Dr. Neal Barnard, “four food groups make up the Power Plate…whole grains, vegetable, legumes, and fruits.” Dr. Trapp told me about Lyle Etsitty, a Navajo man who lost 284 pounds and reversed his diabetes on the plan. Power Plate handed out resources and recipes to anyone who asked. With diabetes at an all time high in many native communities , the Power Plate program seemed like a responsible way for many to get their health back .
The second vendor that impressed me was the Conservation Legacy, part of the National Park Services. The Conservation Legacy is an organization that supports programs and services that help communities protect and preserve ancient lands. In the Southwest, some of the areas the Conservation Legacy helped included Acoma Pueblo, Zuni Pueblo, Mesa Verde, and Grand Canyon National Park. With global temperatures rising and environmental decay on the increase, many ancestral lands are in trouble. The Conservation Legacy is fine way for communities to show care of the land and the people that inhabit it .
These were just two of many fine organizations, ministries, colleges, and sellers that made the Gathering informative and inviting. One ministry was handing out DVD’s that told the life of Jesus in various Native North American languages, including Blackfoot, Cree, Innu, Navajo, Ojibwa, Tiwa, and Zuni .
After perusing the vendors, we had enough time to walk over to Stage 49 (the outdoor performance stage) to check out the line-up of groups, dancers, and speakers that’ll perform throughout the two-day event. I listened to Navajo singer Blackkiss perform. With a darker, brooding style of Americana/country, Blackkiss reminded me of Johnny Cash with traditional-Native twist. I later found a short documentary about his life and music .
What would the Gathering of Nations be without food? A nice mutton stew bread bowl and an Indian Taco helped keep the cold at bay.
If the Gathering of Nations does one thing it’s a reminder; an aide-mémoire that the Native civilizations throughout North and South America are marvelous; that something profound happens when indigenous people gather to glory in their past and present—with a gleaming eye towards a prosperous future.
And if the new Gathering home at Tingley Coliseum is any indication of the future, the prospects look bright indeed.
Photo captions: 1) Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. 2) Native Flute Player (Melanie Nixon). 3) Grand Entrance (Melanie Nixon). 4) Native Dancers. (Melanie Nixon). 5) Blackkiss. (Melanie Nixon). 6) Brian Nixon.
About the writer: Brian Nixon is a writer, artist, musician, and minister. He’s a graduate of California State University, Stanislaus (BA), Veritas Evangelical Seminary (MA) and is a Fellow at Oxford Graduate School (D.Phil.). To learn more, click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Nixon or https://twitter.com/BnixNews.
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