Organizers of Gathering of Nations place a $17-per-day value on experiencing American Indian culture, but members of the UNM Kiva Club say tradition shouldn’t cost money.

Even the performers at the world’s largest American Indian powwow have to pay the admission fee, said Makhpiya Black Elk, Kiva Club president.

“We don’t believe you should charge to get into your own event,” he said. “They’re asking the dancers to put numbers on, pay money and then have a contest to see who’s the best and get all that money. It’s really commercialized. It’s really lost that community that was part of it.”

On Sunday, the day after Gathering of Nations, the Kiva Club and other American Indian groups will host a free powwow that celebrates American Indian culture. The powwow is part of Nizhoni Days, a weeklong festival put on by the Kiva Club that kicked off last Sunday with a sunrise ceremony on campus.

Today, Nizhoni Days organizers host a Miss Indian UNM pageant, in which contestants are judged on traditional performance and storytelling, among other things. They will also host a Native Knowledge Bowl similar to Jeopardy!

But Black Elk, a senior majoring in Native American Studies, said putting on events for free comes with a price. He said the group started the school year $1,200 in debt, and members had to raise money to both pay off the club’s debt and put on this year’s events. Black Elk said putting in the time and effort isn’t always easy, but it’s worth it in the end.

“Sometimes it’s hard. I stayed up all night and then had to come here at 5 o’clock for a sunrise ceremony,” Black Elk said. “But there’s a sense of responsibility that comes with it, that it’s our duty to do this so I think it’s anger that was transformed into passion.”

In the past, the Nizhoni Days powwow attracted up to 5,000 people, said Andrew Nelson, powwow committee chair.

Black Elk said many of the ceremonies are deeply rooted in past traditions. Nizhoni, he said, is a Navajo word for cultural and traditional beauty, as opposed to beauty in the Western sense.

“The powwow tradition, the spring ceremonies, they’re all part of that, it just re-emerged through Kiva Club on campus,” he said. “It’s through this tradition that we try to stand out from Gathering of Nations.”

This year, members of Kiva Club are also commemorating the club’s 60th anniversary. Founded in 1952, Kiva Club is the oldest Native American student group on campus.

“I try to imagine what it was like for the original 25 people that started up Kiva Club in ’52 and try to imagine what was it like to be completely excluded from everything and then to have to plant this seed of what Kiva Club is,” he said. “This is a legacy that I’m very proud to be in.”

But Marley Shebala, president of the Kiva Club in the ‘70s, said indigenous people still face the same struggles as they did 30-40 years ago. She said the Kiva Club used to have its own building, but now the group is forced to rent space in the SUB to hold events.

“How are student organizations supposed to build and reach out to one another when there’s no place for them, especially in an area that’s their regional homeland?” she said. “It’s disrespectful and the University continues to be that way. I would think that after so many years they would have that understanding.”

Black Elk said Kiva Club’s goal for the school year was to promote healthier eating habits in the Native American community. He said the club took a controversial stance against fry bread, because he said the bread was not made until after contact with Europeans. He said unhealthy eating habits contribute to high rates of diabetes on reservations.

“For a lot of people it’s almost a personal attack because fry bread becomes almost an extension of your identity,” he said. “We’re trying to break that because it’s not an indigenous food and so raising awareness to the issue, we’re offending people.”

Former Kiva Club member John Redhouse said the Kiva Club will continue to flourish far past its 60th anniversary.

“I knew that there would always be a Kiva Club,” he said. “The spirit, the tradition, and just because the student population here is one of the highest in the country, and there’s always a need for an organization like that.”

Nizhoni Days

Indian taco sale,
hosted by Diné of UNM
11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Mesa Vista Hall, west courtyard

Knowledge Bowl,
hosted by Native American
Student Indigenous Research
Group and Kiva Club
3-5 p.m.
SUB Acoma A and B

Hoop dancing
by Sage Romero,
hosted by Kiva Club
12-1 p.m.
Cornell Mall

10 a.m.-7 p.m.
Johnson Field

For more events this semester, visit
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