It was dead silent outside of Gallup Catholic High School, in Gallup, New Mexico, and not a single person was around. But walking closer to the school, a consistent thud and murmur could be heard from behind the gym door.
When the door opened, those sounds were identified: the thudding came from drums and the murmurs came from Native’s singing. The 2nd Annual Toys for Tots Christmas Powwow was about to start.
At least 60 dancers of all shapes and sizes lined up the best they could within the cramped entrance of the gym. Some, who usually enter the pow wow circle at the tail-end of the line, had to wait by the bathroom; constantly moving away from the door, so that their feathers didn't get ruffled by patrons going in and out.
The pow wow supports Toys for Tots and was organized by Diné pow wow dancer (and former Marine) Ryan Sandoval. Sandoval wanted to put on a pow wow that benefited children in the community.
Last year, in its first year of existence, the pow wow was held in a small building in Sandoval’s home chapter of Twin Lakes in the Navajo Nation. But that venue was too small, and unfortunately, some donations had to be turned away.
"I really regretted that,” Sandoval said about not be able to find space for all the donations. “But we just couldn't handle the volume, so we moved in here, in Gallup, and it looks like next year we'll move to a bigger building.”
Ivan Succo made several laps around the pow wow circle, pausing briefly to talk to friends or to go up and down the bleachers looking for potential customers. Succo of White Rock, Navajo Nation, was selling car plumes. A northern traditional dancer and part of a well-known drum group Atsa' Butte, Succo was unable to dance on Saturday night.
"I'm not dancing today because of my back. It's injured right now, so I am taking it easy," Succo said. He was hopeful that as more people crammed into the gym, there would be more buyers.
Diné southern straight dancer Aldrick Jackson of Dilkon, Navajo Nation, went outside to escape the heat of all the moving parts inside the gym. He and his family decided to attend the event because they wanted to finish their Christmas shopping in Gallup, an incredibly large metropolis compared to the far smaller towns in the Navajo Nation.
"We came to hang out and get away from home,” Jackson said. “Since it's only two hours away, why not?” He was happy that there would be dancing and good shopping nearby.
But back inside, arena director Earl Sherman, half Diné, half Ute, ran around the gym, squeezing his big frame through the crowd of vendors, and maneuvering around folks with pow wow feathers and adornments.
"I like the turnout this year," Sherman said. "We've been planning better for this one because last year, the gym was too small and it hurt us." He said that there was a bigger pow wow in Farmington, New Mexico, another slightly larger town bordering the Navajo Nation, but that this pow wow specifically benefited young children.
Dallas Mitchell, a Diné man, who’s living and pow wow dancing as a woman, flowed and glided through the circle with ease and grace. After a long week at work, she didn’t plan on dancing, but felt compelled.
"This is the month we lost my grandma (a few years ago) and dancing and coming back to pow wows really makes me a strong person,” Mitchell said tearing up. “I come to pow wows in December, so I remember my grandma because she told me to keep dancing and never stop."
Tee Willie of Manuelito Canyon, Navajo Nation, stood by himself at the entrance of the gym. “This is a beautiful thing," Willie said. "There are so many good dancers out there. I don't know their names, but they are great anyway."
Sandoval said the event would not have been possible without the help of his family, friends and the community as a whole.
"This could not happen without their donated time,” Sandoval said. "Albuquerque has the Gathering of Nations, why can't Gallup have something like that? So for night now, that is my focus.”