The Gathering of Nations Pow Wow in Albuquerque is the stuff of legend. It is a destination point for many Native Americans across the nation. People look forward to it all year. It is a place where you can run into old snags or find a new one. It’s a place where a dancer, singer or vendor can snag some serious dough in just two days. It’s also one of Albuquerque’s biggest cash cows.
According to some estimates this event billed as “North America’s Largest Pow Wow” brings in an estimated $20 million to the local economy, which made it all the more surprising that the University of New Mexico basically gave the powwow’s founders and owners (the Matthews family) the boot a few days after the event was over in late April. The Gathering had taken place at The Pit for nearly three decades.
The question then became whether or not the GoN would move away to a different city or stay put here in the Land of Enchantment. They decided to basically stay put and move to the Expo New Mexico’s Tingley Coliseum at the State Fairgrounds. Dr. Lita Matthews, who is from Santa Clara Pueblo, said the reason why they stayed in Albuquerque was because “this is our home.” It has been reported that the organizers were courted by other states like Kansas, Illinois, Colorado, Oklahoma, Nevada, even Canada.
It will be a smaller gathering. The Powwow Grounds at Tingley will only hold about 11,000 while The Pit holds about 15,000. I’ve been to the Tingley Coliseum and it is much, much smaller than The Pit. It may make for a more intimate setting, and the floor is relatively the same size, but one of the things about the Gathering being in The Pit is to be able to circle around the top rim and look for old friends and acquaintances. Tingley won’t have that.
It will definitely have a different feel to it next year, which to me is a good thing. First of all it’s about a five-minute drive from my house. As a journalist I’ve attended about half of the powwows in the last 20 years. I don’t remember ever paying admission to get into the event. I have noticed one thing, despite all the complaints I hear about the costs involved with the GON – it keeps getting bigger and bigger each year.
When I hear Native people bitchin’ and moaning about the price of admission, parking fees or anything else involved with the costs of attending the Gathering, I always reply, “Then don't go.” Why in the world would you keep going to an event if you thought you were somehow being ripped off, exploited or defrauded by its organizers? It doesn’t make any sense to me.
Let me cut to the gist of the story. That’s an argument from GoN naysayers that I’ve never quite understood. I think a lot of it has to do with envy and jealousy. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that Derek Matthews is a black man – although he has stated to me in past interviews that he has Native ancestry.
The worst of the criticism towards the GoN is that they are exploiting Native culture and Native people. When I talk to people about this, the question I always ask is “are Native people that naïve?” This powwow is all about making money. If you don’t get that then maybe you are being exploited. Maybe you’re not doing your homework.
Also there is a lot of criticism about the Miss Indian World pageant. Word on the street is that contestants have to pay $5k to enter the contest. I am unaware of any proof of that – I was unable to speak with the Matthews family on this matter. But would you allow your daughter or niece to enter the Miss Indian World pageant if she had to raise $5k? Talk about being naïve.
The only conclusion I can gather is that what the Gathering of Nations has to offer – prestige, pride and payout – is worth the price of admission. For all of you who continually keep bitchin’ and moaning about how this powwow and this family are exploiting or cheating Indians, all I can say is, “Then don’t go.”
Harlan McKosato is a citizen of the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma. He is the Director of NDN Productions, an independent media production company based in Albuquerque.