ALBUQUERQUE – For the first time in its 27-year history, the Gathering of Nations powwow was held outdoors at the University of New Mexico football stadium, across the street from its usual location, “the Pit,” April 22 – 24.
The Pit, owned by UNM and home court to the Lobos basketball team, is undergoing a $60 million renovation, which includes new restrooms, concession areas, a clubhouse, and luxury suites. If plans go according to schedule, the project should be completed by November. And GON plans to return to the indoor arena for its 2011 event.
An estimated 100,000 people flock to the annual event, with more than 80 percent coming from out of state, according to a survey conducted by the Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce in 2006. The powwow brings in about $35 million to the city each year, and an additional $15 million to the rest of New Mexico.
GON, a private nonprofit entity founded and operated by Derek Mathews and his family since 1983, established a scholarship foundation for Native college students in 2002. The Web site also lists numerous other charitable practices the organization has engaged in.
Despite the appearance of good deeds, an undercurrent of controversy surrounds Mathews’ business practices. Trouble started brewing in 1990 when Native activists protested the event on the grounds that Mathews, an African-American, was exploiting Native culture for profit. Next came record producer Tom Bee, who after receiving a Grammy for his recording of the event in 2001, was allegedly banned from recording at the event.
The latest wave of criticism comes from Native rapper Litefoot, who left GON in 2007 after supporting it for numerous years. He cited that his fundraising efforts at the powwow were hampered by Mathews, and formed an online boycott of the event, which has garnered more than 600 signatures and a slew of terse comments.
For Mathews, the negative publicity comes at a bad time, as his wife Lita was scheduled to receive a living donor liver transplant May 28.
In an e-mail, he declined an interview with Indian Country Today, but briefly explained his reasoning. “We are preparing for another page in our lives, as we head to Phoenix and the Mayo Clinic for Lita’s Liver transplant. We need no additional stress right now.”
Debate has also circulated on whether the event engages in price gouging. Admission for all ages is $15, and parking this year was $10, collected by and for UNM, according to the GON Web site.
The parking fee came as a shock for Jakey Skye, whose wife and four children have made attending the powwow an annual tradition. He was able to avoid paying the fee, as parties of four or more parked free of charge. The family skipped Friday due to cold and windy weather, but they watched it via live stream on the Internet.
Skye said he has no problem paying the admission because he likes how the event is managed, with the exception of this year, but he doesn’t entirely blame organizers. Due to stadium regulations, spectators and dancers had to keep off the grass, and a platform and walkway was erected for dancers. Sitting in the bleachers, he said, made it difficult to see the dancers, especially in the evening.
“We paid $15 each to watch the powwow on a huge TV screen. Personally, I think it’s better in the Pit, even though it’s smaller.”
But if the costs associated with the event were steep for cash-strapped powwow lovers, the day after GON ends, the UNM KIVA club hosts the free KIVA Pow-Wow as a part of the week long Native celebration, Nizhoni Days. At the end of the non-competition dance, held this year on April 25, the club serves a free dinner to everyone in attendance.
Autumn Chacon, KIVA club’s vice president said, “the drum groups from the Gathering are still pumped up,” and bring energy to the powwow.
Skye has kept up on media reports about GON and understands some of the concerns from both sources and readers, except comments on Mathews’ race in relation to his management of the event. “In our tradition, we respect everybody,” he said. “If you look at that medicine wheel, it has black, red, yellow and white; those are the four colors of men, of race.
“It’s about going there in celebration of renewal of life, making friends, and seeing friends dance.”
Multiple attempts to reach GON organizers for comment were unsuccessful.