Nizhoni Days caps busy powwow weekend

‘Beauty calls beauty’ to open air gathering that is the oldest powwow in New Mexico hosted at the state’s largest university

By: - May 4, 2023 4:03 am

A singer holds his throat to affect his singing at the drum during the Nizhoni Days Powwow at the University of New Mexico on April 30, 2023. (Photo by Jeanette DeDios for Source NM)

The 64th annual Nizhoni Days Powwow capped off an exciting weekend of Indigenous culture in Albuquerque.

Billed as New Mexico’s oldest powwow, hosted by the KIVA Club, one of the oldest Native American college student organizations in the U.S. The event is held outside on Johnson Field located on the University of New Mexico campus.

Compared to the commercial event that is the Gathering of Nations powwow, there is a lot more room to maneuver at the Nizhoni Days powwow and the mood is much lighter, visitors said.

Kelly Mitchell (Navajo) brought friends from out of town to enjoy the powwow. She didn’t attend the Gathering of Nations, “It’s a little too congested, I like this one better.”

‘Stop, and uplift each other’

Mitchell also noted the steep price to enter the state fairgrounds at Expo New Mexico, where the Gathering of Nations Powwow takes place, “it’s $25 for all ages.”

She noted her 4-year-old nephew was charged the full $25 entry. That was enough to turn her off from attending the larger powwow endorsed by the city of Albuquerque and state tourism officials.

Jingle dress dancers hit the dance circle during the Nizhoni Days Powwow in Albuquerque, NM at the University of New Mexico on April 30, 2023. (Photo by Jeanette DeDios for Source NM)

Of note, the UNM powwow is not a contest powwow, meaning there is no prize money to be won, so there’s no pressure.

The dance itself feels like a deep exhale from all of the events of the weekend. The “dress code” is more casual for those attending, shorts and t-shirts are a necessity under the warm New Mexico sun.

You must provide your own seats; finding a spot in the shade, or a space to pitch a tent is a must to beat the heat.

“I’ve been here (Nizhoni Days) before,” said Jack Soto (Navajo/Cocopah) in town visiting from Cedarburg, Wisconsin.

Soto works in higher education and has tabled a booth at Nizhoni Days in the past.

His observation is that the Gathering of Nations seems more overwhelming in its size and scope, in comparison to Nizhoni Days where he feels more comfortable.

“This one’s better. It’s smaller, it feels more like a community,” he said. “As Navajos we didn’t have powwows, as Cocopah we didn’t have powwows either, this seems just to be a bit more accessible.”

“Usually by this time I’d be going home from Gatherings,” says Veronica Hirsch (Chiricahua Apache) visiting from Tucson, Arizona.

Crowds try to beat the heat during the Nizhoni Days Powwow
Crowds try to beat the heat during the Nizhoni Days Powwow held at the University of New Mexico on April 30, 2023. (Photo by Jeanette DeDios for Source NM)

Gathering has been her main destination in previous years.

On this day it’s her first time at Nizhioni Days.

“It’s a fun atmosphere, I’m able to chat more directly with vendors,” she said.

Thousands in Albuquerque for the Gathering of Nations

Hirsch notes that at a larger, more frenetic space like the Gathering of Nations, it would be difficult to pause and have a more personal connection with vendors selling handmade jewelry, shirts from Native designers or other art. People she bought items from.

“I was able to get to know that person and get their (social media),” as opposed to Gathering of Nations where it would be “sensory overload.”

Hirsch says that you can actually talk to people you run into at the Nizhoni Days without yelling or worrying about holding up the crowd behind you.

“You are able to chat to people you don’t know and ask ‘hey where did you get that frybread?’”

Soto agrees.

“I don’t like going to large gatherings with a lot of people,” he adds, “strangers running and bumping into me, (here) it feels like Gallup flea to some degree, everybody’s just putzing around.”

In the end Soto reveals what really brought him to Nizhoni Days, “The word Nizhoni; beauty calls beauty.”

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Jason Asenap
Jason Asenap

Jason Asenap is a Comanche and Muscogee writer and filmmaker based in Albuquerque NM. He holds an MFA in Screenwriting from the Institute of American Indian Arts. His films have screened around the United States and internationally. In addition to film, Asenap contributes thoughtful journalism, writing primarily about Indigenous contributions to film, art, and culture. He is an award-winning Indigenous film critic, receiving top awards for his film criticism from the Native American Journalist Association in 2020 and 2022. You can find his writing in Esquire, Alta Journal, Grist, High Country News, Salon and New Mexico Magazine.