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Duke City welcomes the Gathering of Nations, world’s largest powwow

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Standing before the world’s largest tepee, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller and the current Miss Indian World, Taylor Susan, attend a news conference Monday to welcome the 36th annual Gathering of Nations Powwow, which begins later this week. (Rick Nathanson/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A dazzling display of color, culture and diversity will be highlighted later this week with the start of the 36th annual Gathering of Nations.

Billed as the world’s largest powwow, the three-day visual and auditory spectacle will feature participants from more than 750 tribes, 3,000 performers, and 800 Native artisans and craft traders.

It is also expected to generate an economic impact of $25 million, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said during a Monday news conference at Expo New Mexico to officially welcome the event.

The Gathering of Nations begins Thursday when 18 young women from the United States and Canada compete for the title of Miss Indian World in the Kiva Auditorium at the Albuquerque Convention Center. Events on Friday and Saturday will be held at Tingley Coliseum and the surrounding grounds of Expo New Mexico.

Those speaking at the Monday news conference stood in front of what was said to be the world’s largest tepee, flanked by two Albuquerque city buses illustrated to publicize the event.

The wooden tepee, at 54 feet tall, strips the title away from a 52-foot tall tepee in Switzerland, the previous record-holder, said Derek Mathews, the founder and director of the Gathering of Nations.

Keller noted that when the Gathering of Nations was forced from the University of New Mexico basketball arena, where the event had been held for decades, the city’s goal was “to keep it in Albuquerque.” This is the third year the powwow has been at Expo New Mexico and the city is making a financial investment to keep it there.

An intergovernmental agreement between the city and Expo New Mexico, which is operated by the state, provides $50,000 in funding to defray the rental cost of the facility. In addition, Keller said, the City Council approved $37,000 to supplement direct expenses to the Gathering of Nations.

“This place feels like home, like we really belong,” Mathews said. “There’s a group of people here running Expo New Mexico who believe in us and trust us. That was something we could never establish at UNM, where over the years it just seemed like they were trying to chase us out. When we came to Expo New Mexico, General Manger Dan Mourning said, ‘We don’t bounce balls here, we put on events.’ He and his team meant it, and it has been really good.”

Mathew’s daughter, Melonie Mathews, a co-director of Gathering of Nations and the director of the Miss Indian World program, said the program, ongoing for 35 years, was started in response to poverty and a lack of educational opportunities often found on reservations.

“There was a need for young women to have a voice, and giving them a voice through Miss Indian World allows them to express their culture and themselves.”

Twenty five judges from different backgrounds evaluate the Miss Indian World contestants based on a personal interview, public speaking, a traditional presentation, a dance segment and an essay, she said. Ultimately, the contest helps the women “build character.”

The Gathering of Nations started in 1983 at the former University of Albuquerque, a venue that immediately proved to be too small, Derek Mathews said. It then moved to the horse arena at the State Fairgrounds, but that was too muddy and not fit to accommodate dancers in full regalia. After a few years, they left and wound up at UNM’s Pit, where they remained for about 30 years.

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