ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico (Reuters) - Tomé Roubideaux had not been to the annual meeting of Native American and indigenous people, known as the Gathering of Nations, for a decade because he was battling cancer and too sick to dance.
This year, having survived the disease, the 68-year-old Lakota Indian from Conifer, Colorado, attended the gathering, the largest event of its kind, to give thanks.
Adorned with a vest and headdress of porcupine quills, an eagle feather fan and beaded moccasins, Roubideaux joined thousands of people from 500 tribes from as far away as New Zealand and South America to dance to the rhythm of dozens of drummers.
“It’s so good to be here. It’s my best therapy,” he said.
Some 3,000 singers and dancers perform over the three-day Gathering of Nations, which began on Thursday in Albuquerque.
Celebrating its 29th year, organizers say it’s the largest meeting of Native American and indigenous people in the world. They predict that about 150,000 people will attend.
Participants with buffalo horns, coyote skins and painted faces packed a basketball arena, while 800 artisans displayed their work outside. A webcast for the event had 4,000 hits within the first four hours, said organizer Jason Whitehouse.
“A pow-wow by definition is a social gathering, since it brings people together,” Whitehouse said. “This gathering kicks off the pow-wow season, like a rodeo circuit.”
Whitehouse said the event welcomes anyone to come and learn about indigenous cultures.
“You’d be surprised to know how many people think we still live in teepees or don’t have access to Internet,” he said.
The pow-wow also serves as a place for prayer and showing gratitude, participants said.
Lyle Michaud said he drove 22 hours from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, to dance in his fifth gathering. This time he said it was to bring healing to his people and to celebrate his own health.
Michaud, 38, a Cree from Piapot First Nation, said he had been diabetic until six months ago when he “went to ceremony and was cured of it.”
The days feature dancing and singing competitions and concludes with the crowning of Miss Indian World on Saturday night.
The title goes to the young woman who excels in a series of interviews and talent competitions featuring her tribal knowledge. This year, several contestants danced and told stories, another showed her bead work, and a woman from Puerto Rico shot a bow and arrow to display her hunting skills, Whitehouse said.
Coordinator of the Miss Indian World Pageant, Melanie Mathews, called it “one of the most prestigious honors in the Native American and indigenous world.”
Whitehouse agreed, saying: “It’s a huge honor for the family, big bragging rights on the rez.”
The event also honored the Navajo Code Talkers, a group of Native American U.S. soldiers who developed the only code never deciphered by enemy units in World War Two.
“This is not only a Navajo legacy but a Native American legacy and an American legacy that all people should know,” said Peter MacDonald, president of the Navajo Code Talkers Association.
“It’s the contribution that different ethnic groups made to the freedom that we all enjoy. Everyone should know that history,” he said.
Editing By Ellen Wulfhorst and Eric Beech