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Gathering of Nations completes its first 25 years

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - Gathering of Nations is billed as ''North America's Biggest Powwow,'' taking place annually during the last weekend in April. This is evident in many ways, whether it's watching a grand entry that literally fills the floor of ''The Pit'' with dancers of all categories, or simply walking around the top of the the University of New Mexico Arena, seeing people of all backgrounds and nationalities walking to their seats or to shop with different vendors.

People come from all parts of the Americas - North and South - to attend or participate in GON. But its origins speak to smaller beginnings, when it began as a student pow wow in the gym of the former University of Albuquerque campus in 1983. Derek Mathews, then the dean of students and Indian Club adviser, said there was difficulty in getting student help that initial year. Yet, the pow wow was a success, and had really outgrown the gym in which the pow wow began.

''The next year, the university changed ownership,'' he said. ''The new owners decided they didn't want something like that on campus at all. We had already been promoting it for the following year. With that, we felt that it was too late to cancel, so we moved out on our own. The very next year, which would have been 1984, it took on the name 'Gathering of Nations Powwow.'''

After moving the pow wow to the Horse Arena at the New Mexico State Fairgrounds for the next two years, Mathews saw the event grow not only in the amount of dancers and attendees, but also as a year-round personal labor of love for Mathews, his wife, Lita, and their daughter, Melonie. With a background in both the pow wow world and with the National Indian Finals Rodeo, Mathews said he wanted to create an event that was educational, fair and enjoyable for all who attended.

''I wanted to do something that would be a fair contest for everybody. That was really the absolute foundation for where we began, was to create a fair one where there was no politics on my part or anybody that was involved. All we wanted was real winners and a real good time for everyone that attended.''

By 1986, GON moved to its current location: ''The Pit'' on the University of New Mexico campus, where Mathews has seen GON growing bigger than anyone could imagine. Mathews gives credit for the growth of GON in its early years to participants and attendees from Oklahoma and then, in later years, to the Internet, where Mathews said the pow wow has had an ''international flavor.''

Additions over the years include the expansion of the Indian Traders Market; ''Stage 49,'' where those who attend can see Native hip hop and blues performers; and tribes from such areas as the Southwest, Northeast and Alaska performing exhibition dances during breaks in the pow wow contests.

Another part of GON that has grown along with the pow wow is Miss Indian World. At first, Mathews said the contest started as ''very small and very disorganized,'' but has since grown to include Native contestants from throughout the Western Hemisphere.

''I didn't feel it was right necessarily for me as a man to be that deeply involved in a pageant for women,'' Mathews said. ''My concept was not a beauty pageant. I wanted it to be a pageant where the pride and culture of Indian women was the focus, and that was what the judges would be looking for to make their determination.''

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The Mathews family places a lot of thought and effort into who they want for their pow wow head staff each year, with an effort to keep the same announcers and arena directors each year for the sake of continuity and familiarity.

''With an event the size of Gathering of Nations, those are not just honorary positions,'' Mathews said. ''Those are true working positions. To be familiar with the event, you've got to hit the ground running and know exactly what to do and not be overwhelmed by the size of it.''

One example of this is that one of their constant masters of ceremonies over the years has been Sammy ''Tone-Kei'' White, who has been with GON since the beginning. Although Tone-Kei couldn't attend this year due to illness, GON made the connections to have Tone-Kei broadcasted for the crowd through the phone. Another example is that for the past nine years, the arena directors for GON have been Randy Medicine Bear and George ''Cricket'' Shields.

For head dancer positions, Mathews said that he and his family look for those dancers who carry themselves well and make a good impression upon others, traveling 30,000 miles each year to find them. For head judge positions, ''We look for people who we believe will follow our rules and directions and will help us in our efforts to make this a fair contest for everybody.''

GON supports itself from year to year, requiring upwards of $400,000 for each pow wow. Mathews said that 25 percent of its funds come from sponsors and sales of program books, while the remaining 75 percent comes from admission and vendor fees.

GON has also formed a partnership over the years with the University of New Mexico, where they have an office on the UNM campus and whose contract extends through 2013 to keep GON at its current annual location, despite constant rumors of GON moving. Four years ago, GON started the Gathering of Nations Foundation Scholarship, giving $500 each semester to five students - junior, senior or graduate - to help with books and fees. GON also awards periodically the Dr. Lita Mathews Graduate Scholarship, designed for an older student who is seeking a graduate degree and who is a dancer in the pow wow arena. Two years ago, the first recipient of this scholarship was Jennifer Young Bear of New Town, N.D.

For Mathews, there are many components to making GON successful every year, but with the main component that being that GON is his family's ''life's work.''

''We put everything - our minds, body and soul - into making it happen,'' he said. ''The other part of that is that people who have taken interest from the outside - the people who come every year.

''It's about the people. Without the dancers and the singers and all the other people, it really wouldn't be what it is. So many people enjoy coming, seeing old friends and making new friends. There's no place like it.

''Many people say, 'It's such a crowded environment.' We find that people enjoy being shoulder to shoulder and wall-to-wall Native. It's a good place once a year for everybody to come like that. The fact that we keep it as fair, on the up-and-up and entertaining as we do to everybody, those are the keys to keeping it successful.''