Derek Mathews has lived in New Mexico for most of the last 40 years, but he traces his fascination with powwows to his youth in Chicago.
Yep, the Windy City.
The only child of two federal government workers – mom employed by the Social Security Administration, dad by the IRS – Mathews grew up in the city’s racially diverse Hyde Park area, where he remembers being surrounded by museums and parks, intellectuals and artists, and, of course, academia.
“My neighborhood,” he says, “was the University of Chicago.”
Basically, it was culture galore.
Long before he founded the Gathering of Nations PowWow – an annual Albuquerque spectacle that brings to the UNM Pit dancers from hundreds of tribes and as many as 150,000 spectators – he was attending the annual powwow hosted by Chicago’s American Indian Center.
“It was very small,” he recalls. “It was in a National Guard armory, which was equivalent to the horse arena at (Expo New Mexico). It was a dirt floor, very dusty, dingy kind of place.”
The event – combined with his curiosity about the Cherokee heritage on his mom’s side and Choctaw ancestry on his dad’s side – sparked a lifelong interest in Native American culture.
It also helped lay the foundation for his future career, even if he didn’t know it at the time.
Back then, Mathews says, he had no idea what he wanted to do. While most of his classmates charted courses toward medicine and law, Mathews had no particular professional ambition. If he had a thing at the time, it was basketball. He had taken it up in seventh grade and continued playing to some acclaim through high school, earning second-team All-City honors.
But growing up in Hyde Park ensured he was never a one-dimensional jock. He lived among and went to school with the children of well-known politicians, musicians and entertainers, and his connections led to early jobs as a stage hand in Oscar Brown Jr.’s Chicago theatrical productions.
“I guess for him maybe it was a way of finding low-pay workers because we did it for nothing. We were just glad to be there,” he says. “At the same time, we were all learning what it was like to be a part of the theater.”
Mathews, it turned out, had a knack for the behind-the-scenes stuff. Staff at his school started relying on him to produce assemblies and holiday programs, and he even helped with citywide events like parades.
“I liked doing it. It came very easy: Organizing people, getting people into various areas where their expertise – at whatever levels we were at – was for the better cause of whatever we were up to,” he says.
His path to the powwow began, somewhat strangely, in North Carolina. He started college there but after a year of overwhelming culture shock, he wanted out. He found what he considered the perfect antidote in New Mexico, where he moved in 1970.
“From there, a whole new world opened up,” he says.
He studied theater production at College of Santa Fe and met his first wife, who hailed from Santa Clara Pueblo.
The couple moved to Chicago for graduate school but maintained ties to New Mexico, where Mathews landed a job as a photographer and media staffer for the Santa Clara Pueblo governor. Though he’s not a registered member of any tribe, Mathews became increasingly immersed in the local Native American community with subsequent jobs as a teacher at the Albuquerque Indian School and media specialist for the All Indian Pueblo Council.
But it was a later position at the now-defunct University of Albuquerque – where his duties included Native American student adviser – that he got his official start in powwow planning. He helped students stage a campus powwow. It was a raging success.
“We over-packed a little gym that had a capacity of 300 people,” he says. “I think we had about 700 or 800 people that showed up.”
An Albuquerque tradition was born.
When the school’s new president, a Catholic priest, forbade Mathews from organizing it the next year, Mathews took it as a personal affront. He left, determined to keep the powwow going elsewhere.
He moved it to the state fairgrounds horse arena, at one point selling off a valuable painting he had hanging in his home in order to cover powwow expenses. After two years at the fairgrounds – one successful, one a flooded mess – he made a play for the Pit in 1986. It has been held there ever since.
When not organizing the event, now in its 31st year, he’s probably indulging his other passions: Music, horticulture and tending to his four beloved cats.
Q: Did you ever get any great advice from any of these really successful artists or leaders you were surrounded by in Hyde Park?
A: I don’t know if there was any great advice, I really couldn’t say. One thing that I did was I watched and observed very intuitively what everybody else did … from the standpoint of how they produced the various shows, how they carried their own lifestyles. In addition to all the (artists and musicians), there were a lot of people in the community who were really wealthy. … Not necessarily having the wealth of the others, I was very observant in how they lived and how they conducted their lives and, sure enough, I would try to emulate the best way I could. I’d always go home and try to rearrange the furniture when I’d been somewhere different. (laughs)
Q: What is the best compliment you’ve ever received?
A: It would have to be the Grammy we won. The Gathering of Nations won the first Grammy in 2000, and that one we shared with a recording company here called Soar, and so we really didn’t get the total credit for that one. And we won the 2010 Grammy, which was the last Grammy in the Native American category, and that one has our name on it. It was really, really exceptional.
Q: What are your pet peeves?
A: People that don’t move at the speed I think they should. Or (it’s a) lack of professionalism.
Q: Do you have any strange quirks or superstitions?
A: I’m afraid of the dark, and that comes from Chicago. No matter where you live in Chicago, there’s always been burglars, there’s always been bad guys, there’s always been people with guns. There were a few occasions where our homes and apartments were broken into. One night when I was staying with my grandmother and she was putting me to bed … there’s a foot coming through the window (from someone climbing in from the adjacent building). … Just terrified from things like that. The fear of somebody while I’m asleep doing something. I sleep with lights on. I’m a lighting master of night lights. Even in hotels, I’ll string Christmas lights or something.
Q: What is your perfect way to spend a day off?
A: In the mountains, for sure. Hiking, camping, cooking, just listening to the wind and the water, whatever it may be.