Remembering the past, celebrating the present

·5 min read

Aug. 5—details

—Gallup Intertribal Ceremonial

—Through Aug. 14

—Red Rock Park, 825 Outlaw Road, Church Rock

—Ticket prices vary; 505-905-1640, gallupintertribalceremonial.com

When people congregated for the first edition of what's now known as the Gallup Intertribal Ceremonial, the nation was battle-weary from a harrowing global pandemic.

The year was 1922, not long after the flu pandemic of 1918 had upended daily life for a generation of Americans. As a state, New Mexico was 10 years old. Attendees converged via covered wagons and horses on a city that then had about 4,000 residents, a far cry from the current population of about 22,000.

The celebration, which is one of the state's longest running events, has been held annually since, with the exception of pandemic-plagued 2020. This year, for the event's centennial, it began on Aug. 4 and stretches across two weekends and 11 days — up from the typical one weekend and five total days. It's organized by the Intertribal Ceremonial Office, Gallup Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial Associations, and city of Gallup, and is known colloquially as Ceremonial, although some call it "the Ceremonial."

Activities include Indigenous tribal processions and performances, rodeo events, queen and princess pageants, a juried art show and wine gala, a 5K run/walk, parades, and a film festival. They're held both at Red Rock Park near Gallup and in the city itself.

"For Native and Indigenous peoples, we all have an underlying connection as caretakers of our lands, our languages, our cultural knowledge," says Melissa Sanchez, executive director of the Intertribal Ceremonial Office, one of the groups putting on the festival. "We focus these celebrations on what we can share; if we're not doing that, then we'll lose that knowledge. And we'll lose what our ancestors fought so hard to keep alive for us."

Additionally, it's an opportunity for members of various tribes — as well as tourists — to interact in a festive setting.

"When [tribes] have a casual way of celebrating together, such as this, it really just turns into a fun opportunity to visit and to enjoy others' songs, other tribes' songs and dances, learn how they're doing things, how planting has evolved, how the harvest is going," says Sanchez (Acoma/Laguna). "You know, what has happened in each other's tribes or lives. You still have those cultural connections, even though there's the cultural diversity."

Ceremonial was canceled because of the pandemic in 2020 and resumed in a limited capacity in 2021.

Sanchez estimated that organizers have been preparing for this year's centennial event for five years, but the pandemic slowed their progress. Capacity limits in 2021 prompted organizers to consider other ways to reach people, and one result was producing a television documentary, The Spirit of the Ceremonial.

"One of the benefits of the TV documentary was that it helped us reach a farther audience and a new audience," Sanchez says. "And we were able to utilize what we had all learned during the pandemic in general, and that was one of the methods: video communication. So we were able to reach out to groups farther away during the pandemic. For instance, one of the groups featured in the TV documentary is the Ma-ori tribe in New Zealand and another is from Alaska."

Recording and preserving activities at Ceremonial is a key mission for Sanchez.

"When I took this position a couple of years ago, in my research I realized that this event hadn't really been properly documented," she says. "I was surprised, and this made it difficult for me to find authentic information on it."

What documentation she did find had taken place in the 1950s or '60s, she says, from a non-Native perspective, "which is OK, because you know as a people we have all evolved now, especially Native people, to be able to tell our own stories."

Exchanging information was a key element of Ceremonial in its early days, Sanchez says. It was held in the fall, when harvests were on attendees' minds, and they'd exchange tips and stories.

"And then some other stories I heard were that [Native attendees] would come to see their friends and make new friends, and then they would also return to the exact same space [at Ceremonial] that they kept the year before so their friends and family could find them," Sanchez says. "And, you know, what's really funny is that we still do that."

Asked what makes Ceremonial different from other tribal events, Sanchez says the others might focus specifically on a powwow or art.

"This one has always been on culture and heritage, songs and dances and art, things that the Indigenous people could share with each other," she says. That comes through in the documentary, Sanchez adds.

Ceremonial was scheduled to begin with kickoff and night parades featuring eagle dancers, followed by large groups of Navajo, Pueblo, Apache, and other tribal members. Among the other mainstays are rodeo events, with more than $120,000 to be awarded in prizes, and a juried art show, offering more than $100,000 in prizes.

The queen pageant started in the 1930s, Sanchez says.

"And with Native American pageantry, the focus is on ambassadorship — representing your community and your tribe and then also your own cultural knowledge and empowering others," she says.

Sanchez estimates that about 30,000 people will attend this year's Ceremonial, "a little above" normal numbers.

The coincidence of the nation emerging from a pandemic during the first event and its centennial isn't lost on Sanchez.

"I started thinking how it must have meant so much to see each other again [in 1922], and that's the same feeling that's going into this particular event."

While she expects many celebratory reunions, some attendees may also learn that they lost people they'd known from the event amid the pandemic.

"We might receive news that they've gone on," Sanchez says, "but it's also an opportunity to celebrate their lives."