Gathering of Nations

Annual powwow feels the impact of a slow economy

By Diane J. Schmidt
Special to the Times

ALBUQUERQUE, May 3, 2012

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(Special to the Times - Donovan Quintero)

TOP: Dancers dance in place after they fill the arena floor Friday evening during the Gathering of Nations Powwow grand entry in Albuquerque.
BOTTOM: The Gathering of Nations Powwow eagle spreads its wings for the cheering crowd Saturday night during the Gathering of Nations Powwow grand entry in Albuquerque.


he Gathering of Nations is a big event and it's big business for the city of Albuquerque but perhaps not as profitable for Gathering of Nations founder Derek Mathews as critics might think.

And for those on the powwow circuit it also means big costs - the dancers, Miss Indian World contestants, vendors and musicians.

Figures for attendance and economic varied. Billy Sparks, the University of New Mexico event coordinator said, "The capacity of the Pit is 17,100 at any one time. We estimate 30 to 40 thousand people attended the event over two days."

In 2010 Derek Mathews, founder of the powwow, released figures to the Navajo Times showing the expenses to put on the event that year were over $805,000, more than twice what was taken in that year in ticket sales and vendor fees.

Sparks added, "I assure you, this is not a money-making event for the Gathering of Nations. The big winner is the city of Albuquerque."

Mathews declined a request for an interview with the Navajo Times following the event but did respond to questions by email on Monday through his PR firm. He gave 80,000 as his estimated attendance figure.

The Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce, which has a contract with the city to promote Native and Hispanic events, said that last year the event drew 112,000 and estimated that this year the number would be higher.

According to Thomas Briones, board chairman, the economic benefit to the city is "an $18 million boost to the economy every year."

Sparks said he would actually put the economic impact to the city at a much higher figure of $30 million for the lower 40,000 number of attendees he estimated attended over four days. However, many attendees are local.

The Miss Indian World event at the Hard Rock Albuquerque Hotel and Casino Thursday night had an overflow crowd that packed the 3,000 theater.

Scott Dotson, UNM sports facilities manager, said that Gathering of Nations has to pay UNM for expenses of approximately $70,000.

The costs of putting on the event add up. Prize money of $200,000 is given out for the more than 30 dance events. The powwow is also expected to provide $30,000 to $50,000 in scholarship money to UNM.

The Gathering's website showed that supplemental scholarships were awarded to six undergraduate students last year.

The "Dr. Rita Graduate Award, valued at $25,000 for up to four or five semesters" was awarded in 2006 to Jennifer Young Bear.

According to the UNM alumni office, Young Bear graduated with a master's in 2008. Since then no other graduate scholarship has been announced.

The nonprofit Gathering of Nations has a three person board of directors, the minimum requirement for New Mexico, consisting of Derek Mathews, his wife Rita Mathews, an enrolled member of the Santa Clara Pueblo, and his daughter Melonie.

Another charitable event is a book giveaway to children. The majority of the books are provided through a nonprofit organization, First Book, that, according to an article in the Gathering of Nations program, distributes publishers' excess inventories.

Sparks, who is half-Cherokee, a Sun dancer and a Lakota pipe carrier, is an ardent defender of the Gathering of Nations and says, "When you consider that the Sun Dance was outlawed and up to 1977 you could spend a year in Leavenworth for participating in it, when you see 3,000 Indians in regalia follow an eagle staff, it is a touching moment. We've only had religious freedoms since 1978."

One vendor in their 13th year at the event said they spent $2,000 just to get there and sales have been down every year for the past three years.

This vendor, with a quality display of traditional jewelry and leather goods, asked to remain anonymous.

She said there were fewer people coming into the tent and fewer sales.

"We're in this for a business, some of these vendors are here more for a family activity, but this is disappointing for the opening of the powwow season ... It's 9:30 Saturday night and you can see we're already packing up."

Sparks pointed out that lower sales are happening all over.

For the father of the Miss Indian World contestant Kelsey Wallace from rural Alaska, the experience was bittersweet.

John Wallace estimated that his family spent close to $10,000 for airfare, hotels, meals, the two-day entry tickets and travel.

He said that they got some sponsorship from their community and a company but much came out of his pocket.

But, he added, "for Kelsey, she's got her people here with her. Her regalia was all passed on from the villages of Eek and Bethel. Some had not been worn in 50 years."