Set in the heart of Native American ancestral homelands, Gallup, New Mexico, is a gateway to Native American culture. The Navajo Nation lies at the city’s doorstep. The Pueblo of Zuni is south of the city and the Hopi Reservation lies just over the state line in Arizona. The region’s culture truly shines during the Gallup Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial, when Native Americans from across the Southwest and Mexico flock to the town for a week of pow wows, parades, an all-Indian rodeo, and other events.
Kathleen Matta, a new board member for the Ceremonial whose father was its executive director for nearly 20 years says the event “represents the culture in New Mexico. It represents the importance of knowing our history and our culture, and honoring both.”
While many aspects of Native American culture are featured, the most heartwarming occasions of the entire week are when youngsters and elders take the stage during the Tiny Tots Pageant and the best-dressed Grandma-Grandpa Contest. The celebration takes an active turn with 5 and 10K runs, which nod to the Native American running tradition. The rodeo competitions begin with junior bull riding, ladies team roping, and qualifying events for The American, a top event in Arlington, Texas.
The event takes place over nine days, but if you can only make it for a weekend, here’s how to make the most of your time at this action-packed festival
As soon as you get to town, head over to the amphitheater at Red Rock Park, surrounded by 200-million-year-old cinnamon-colored cliffs. Dances by groups such as the enthralling White Mountain Apache take place there throughout the weekend, so it’s a good place to check in whenever you have a few spare moments. As the evening begins, go to the main pow wow grounds for the gourd dance—a men’s dance that originated with the Kiowa tribe. The Voladores, aka “The Flying Men,” also soar above these performance grounds. Hailing from Mexico—the ceremonial touts many indigenous cultures—the Voladores enact a modified form of an ancient Mesoamerican ceremony in which they’re suspended from their feet on ropes attached to a central pole and swing high above the crowd.
The Ceremonial covers two weekends, and if you come for the second one, you’ll get to experience the pow wow. It features various age categories from tiny tots to grandparents and many dance styles, such as ladies fancy shawl and men’s fancy feather dance. The evening’s highlights also include the grand entry, which occurs a few times throughout the weekend. Participants clad in their regalia enter the grounds together in a blur of color and sound.
Inter-Tribal Ceremonial Queen pageant events, including a traditional talent competition, take place earlier in the week, and the crowning ceremony recognizes a participant who exemplifies her indigenous culture and can speak to her chosen social-issue platform.
Kick off your day with one of the Ceremonial’s signature events: the parade through downtown Gallup. The dazzling event features dance groups from Navajo basket dancers to Pueblo buffalo dancers, and the Zuni Olla maidens, who have traveled around the world sharing their culture. The Navajo Nation marching band treats the audience to music while hoop dancers twirl.
By this point in the week, the all-Indian rodeo is in full swing. Rodeo is deeply rooted in Native American culture and is a display of the grit and horsemanship for which many tribes are known. The lineup includes the eight standard events, like bareback riding, team roping, and barrel racing. It also includes a few lesser-known events that have long been traditions at the ceremonial, like a Pony Express Race and a women’s fry bread pan throwing contest.
Head back to the main pow wow arena for more night performances from groups including the Aztec, Southern Cheyenne, Navajo, and Zuni Pueblo.
An artists and crafts market overflows the exhibition hall with tables of silver-and-turquoise jewelry, pottery, baskets, rugs, and other items throughout the week. It opens with a casual, cocktail-party-style wine tasting on Friday, but if you haven’t visited yet, this is your last chance to browse the one-of-a-kind finds before you head home.
Where to Eat
While on the go for the Gallup Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial, you’ll need to fuel up and several restaurants blend comfort food and Native culture. Sandra’s Cafe is a breakfast favorite, with plate-size pancakes, French toast, and breakfast burritos smothered in green chile. At local institutions like Jerry’s Café and Earl’s Restaurant, enjoy Navajo tacos (on fry bread instead of a tortilla) and shop for Native American jewelry tableside while you eat.
Other options in town include 505 Burgers & Wings, living up to its name with more than a dozen piled-high burger options. At Sammy C’s, pub fare comes alongside sports fandom. The bar always has games broadcasting on its large-screen TVs and the owner, former broadcaster Sammy Chioda, has a massive memorabilia collection. For a more upscale—think steak and seafood—dinner, head to Badlands Grill, which has been in the same family since 1969 and enjoys a setting on old Route 66.
Where to Stay
Gallup has plenty of lodging options. For a historic stay, book a room at the El Rancho Hotel. The brother of film director D.W. Griffith built this Route 66 hotel that became a home-away-from-home for many Hollywood movie stars during the 1930s and ‘40s when they were filming in Gallup. Today, the rooms bear the names of many stars who once spent the night up the grand staircase, like Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. The downstairs 49er Lounge also nods to past guests with its John Wayne burger and Ronald Reagan burger. The latter is served with jelly beans—the Gipper’s favorite.
There is also a full slate of national hotels, such as Holiday Inn Express & Suites, Comfort Suites, Sleep Inn, Hampton Inn, and La Quinta.
Written by Ashley M. Biggers for Matcha in partnership with New Mexico Tourism Department.