'My healing place': Attendees enjoy last day at Gathering of Nations

Apr. 27—Elvira Francis followed the sound of the drums, as she had for the past five decades. The 75-year-old from Window Rock has been going to powwows longer than she could remember.

As a young girl, Francis — of Jemez, Hopi and Navajo heritage — danced. And when she was pregnant with a child of her own, she danced. More recently, when she had breast cancer, she danced.

In February, she said, the cancer was gone.

"I always say that when I'm in the arena, that's my medicine. ... My healing place is in there." Francis said on Saturday, pointing toward the sound of beating drums emanating from the 41st Gathering of Nations Powwow.

"When you go into the arena," she said, "you're in your own world. It's really something to experience."

Francis was one of tens of thousands to travel to Albuquerque for the annual powwow, where Native Americans and other Indigenous peoples spend days celebrating their culture — through singing, dancing and beating drums.

The event also draws tourists from all over the world to watch the various competitions, learn about the culture and buy Indigenous-made art and food.

This year, the event was expected to see 3,000 dancers and singers from tribes across the nation and Canada with 800 others displaying arts and crafts.

Inside Tingley Coliseum at Expo New Mexico, where Francis was headed, the gourd dancing was underway Saturday afternoon, the powwow's last day.

A dozen people from different tribes, in a mix of Native dress, White Sox ballcaps and hoodies, beat the same drum as they sat in a circle around it, and they sang.

Others in Native dress danced and sang around the perimeter while ringing traditional bells and waving sacred feathers, moving closer and closer to the inner circle.

And as the beat of the single drum grew louder, the voices appeared to become one, and the song soon echoed through the space from every corner as those in the stands joined in.

Francis said she enjoys the annual event but felt it was changing in recent years, with more of a focus on money and less respect for elders, like her, and the tribes in general.

She said when she was a young girl, they danced for "itty-bitty" trophies, but now the trophies have been replaced by cash prizes. Francis said it has had an effect on some of the participants' motives.

"It's different, because right now, a lot of people are mainly looking at the powwow as a contest, it's just looking at the money," she said. "To a certain point, a lot of our people are losing the real meaning because of the money."

Francis said she has taught her children and grandchildren that they aren't going to powwows for money "or else we are going to stay home and plant corn or whatever."

"We love to do this. And we want to continue it with our children, so our grandchildren can grow up with it. There's a lot of meaning to it," she said. "Like I said, that's my healing place in there."

And with that, Francis walked inside to find some healing.

While many Native Americans came for something familiar, others made the trip to experience something new.

Debby Greif of Mouth of Wilson, Virginia, said it was on her bucket list for awhile. She retired as a teacher and it became a priority.

"So far, it's been fantastic," she said, as she chewed an apple and admired a line of Native dancers, the smell of fry bread wafting over the area.

Greif said she loved the dancers most and hoped to see the horse parade. She said she enjoyed seeing non-Native families come to the powwow, immersing themselves in a different culture.

"Especially when you see like the kids. And you see that it's being brought down to the kids, and that's amazing," she said.

Daniel Peters of Roswell could barely hide his enthusiasm. He said he liked "everything about it" his first time around.

"The dances — it's fantastic; the cultural display, great," Peters said. "I want to see it all."

He appeared to take particular fancy to the foods being sold, his favorite: a Navajo burger wrapped in fry bread. Peters said, "Going around, eating, eating, eating."