By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The start of this year's powwow season got under way Friday as hundreds of Native American and indigenous dancers crowded onto the floor of University of New Mexico Arena, each one pounding their feet in rhythm to dozens of beating drums.
Donning traditional costumes of beads, bells, feathers, fringed leather and shells, they came from Canada, both coasts of the United States and everywhere in between.
"It's a wonderful spectacle to see," said Jason Whitehouse, a master of ceremonies for the 29th Annual Gathering of Nations.
Aside from the thousands of dancers and singers who participate in competitions, as many as 150,000 spectators were expected to pass through the doors during the three-day event. It wraps up late Saturday with award ceremonies and the crowning of Miss Indian World.
Organizers bill the Gathering of Nations as one of the world's largest powwows.
Caleen Sisk, tribal chief of Northern California's Winnemem Wintu Tribe, bought tickets for her family Friday. To her, the gathering is also about celebrating the differences among native people. More than 500 tribes are represented at this year's event.
"It's one of the things I think that's missing in the whole country. People don't realize we're still here," she said. "We're still living and we're still practicing our traditional ways."
At the bottom of the arena, better known as The Pit, the air was thin, the floor was packed and the jingling of bells was almost deafening as the dancers came together for the opening ceremony and the first of four grand entries.
The vibrations carried up the bleachers as spectators lifted up their cameras and smartphones to catch some of the action.
Whitehouse said Gathering of Nations is still much like it was when it first started more than two decades ago _ a chance for younger generations to meet with elders, hear their stories and talk about how things have changed and the progress made by native people.
"It's the perfect example of how we pass down our history," he said.