ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Nearly 3,000 indigenous dancers representing hundreds of tribes from across the United States, Canada and other parts of the world kicked off one of North America's most prominent powwows on Friday.
With beating drums and jingling bells, the dancers twisted their way from the top steps down into the well of University of New Mexico Arena, spiraling clockwise until the arena floor was packed.
Spectators caught glimpses of feathered bustles, buckskin dresses, elaborate outfits with hand-stitched designs and hair pieces covered with intricate beadwork.
It's no doubt a showcase of indigenous cultures and a means to preserving tradition, but it's also about competition.
"A lot of these dancers — most of these dancers in fact — train year-round for this first event of the year, of the powwow season," said Larry Yazzie, a champion dancer himself and founder of Native Pride Arts. "They're like athletes. They run, they bike, weightlifting, eat right, whatever they can to get that edge out there on the dance arena."
Most dancers at the Gathering of Nations compete for prize money during the weekend powwow.
Organizers say the annual event draws more than 100,000 people to Albuquerque.
Friday marked a special day for the powwow. Dancers took to the floor early to honor Spike Draper, an award-winning fancy dancer from Farmington, New Mexico, who died last year in a horse accident.
Draper was named posthumously the head man dancer this year, one of the highest recognitions within the powwow world. Draper's father danced in his place during Friday's grand entry.
Head dancers are chosen each year based on their experience and notoriety on the powwow circuit.
Representing young women this year is Jayda Gadwa, a fancy shawl dancer from the Kehewin Cree Nation in Alberta, Canada. Gadwa has been dancing since she was old enough to walk.
So what's it like to be in the heart of the arena, where the beating drums and pounding feet make for an almost deafening rhythmic rumble?
"Good vibes all around," Gadwa said of the feeling.
But there's also a seriousness that the competitors talk about, one rooted in years of practice and lessons about what the dances mean. Then there's the pressure to absorb it all for the sake of passing it on to the next generation.
"It's important. I believe us native, aboriginal people wouldn't be anyone without our culture," Gadwa said.