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UNM booted Gathering of Nations after long-simmering feud

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

Think of it as a bad marriage and a divorce too long in the making.

That seems to be the mutual feeling between the

Melonie Mathews, coordinator of the Miss Indian World competition, speaks to Albuquerque Hispano Chamber President Alex O. Romero, left, and chamber Vice President Ernie C'de Baca.

Melonie Mathews, coordinator of the Miss Indian World competition, speaks to Albuquerque Hispano Chamber President Alex O. Romero, left, and chamber Vice President Ernie C’de Baca.

Gathering of Nations and the University of New Mexico, which unceremoniously terminated the contract for the annual event May 5. Both parties acknowledge that friction between them goes back many years.

The question now is whether the kids, in this case the local economy and the Hispano Chamber of Commerce, take a big hit.

The Gathering of Nations, billed as the largest gathering in the world of Native Americans and indigenous people, had just wound up its annual event at UNM’s WisePies basketball arena on April 30, where it has been held for most of its 33 years, when word came that UNM would no longer host it.

The initial absence of an explanation from UNM officials – other than a loss of $2,300 from the previous year’s event – and the apparent blindsiding of Gathering of Nations founder Derek Mathews and his family, resulted in a backlash of negative public comment.

Many lambasted what they perceived as the university’s lack of sensitivity, particularly in view of recent Native American student protests over the UNM seal. Others pointed to the event’s economic impact and the paltry sum of money UNM claimed to have lost, given the 75,000 people and $20 million the two-day event reportedly brings to the city.

“Our timing was inelegant,” conceded UNM Executive Vice President of Administration David Harris. The real reason for the termination, he said in a recent interview, was “long-standing operational issues” that involved safety and security and that “money was never the issue.”

Gathering of Nations founder Derek Mathews, center, and his wife, Lita Mathews, right, meet Thursday with Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce officials to talk about the future of the nation's largest powwow. Other states are vying to host the event, but Mathews said he would like it to stay here.

Gathering of Nations founder Derek Mathews, center, and his wife, Lita Mathews, right, meet Thursday with Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce officials to talk about the future of the nation’s largest powwow. Other states are vying to host the event, but Mathews said he would like it to stay here.

But Mathews said the safety and security issues cited by the university are bogus, and that when someone says it’s not about the money, “it’s about the money – it’s all about the money.”

According to Harris, the event organizers controlled ticketing, which prevented UNM from knowing the number of people in the arena at any given time, creating potential crowd capacity and fire dangers. Further, he said, the organizers insisted that UNM campus police not be allowed in the building for fear the presence of armed and uniformed officers “was a potential powder keg.”

‘It’s our building’

At nearly every other event put on by an outside organization and held at UNM venues, including the basketball arena more commonly known as the Pit, the university controls ticketing, and campus police always have a security presence, said UNM Police Chief Kevin McCabe.

“It’s our building, our facility. We have a vested interest in protecting it and the people who are attending, and it’s hard to be on the sidelines,” he said.

These safety concerns were “the deal breaker for me,” Harris said. “It just became clear to us over time that we were not going to be able to work with these particular operators, so we concluded that our best bet was simply to discontinue the relationship.”

Under the terms of the contract, UNM could unilaterally terminate the agreement with 120 days notice prior to the next powwow.

Mathews countered that the safety issues had already been addressed and said that, for years, employees of the Gathering of Nations used hand-held tally clickers at the entrance and exit doors.

“We knew how many came through and how many left, and based on the number of people in the facility, we’d stop selling tickets or slow down until enough people left to allow more in,” he said.

The reason the Gathering of Nations had ticketing control written into its contract was a fear that UNM would sharply raise the ticket price, set at $18 per day for the most recent powwow, if it handled admissions, Mathews said.

“We are a family-oriented event, and the people we want most to attend, our Native American community and the community at large, might not be able to afford it,” he said.

Although the university opposed the ticketing arrangement, Harris said, it continued to include the provision in the Gathering of Nations five-year contracts “because it was the only way we could retain the event.”

It is true, Mathews said, that the presence of uniformed and armed campus police was not encouraged inside the building.

“People sing, dance, pray and honor one another. It is a spiritual event, no alcohol is sold at powwows anywhere in the country,” he said. “We hire our own security, and there has never been a problem.”

Mathews noted that UNM, which continues to lose state funding and tuition revenues, is considering the sale of alcoholic beverages at its sports arenas. He said he suspects that UNM wants to move the Gathering of Nations from the Pit to free up that time slot to book events that could make more money for the university.

UNM officials denied having that ulterior motive.

Early signs

Animosity between Gathering of Nations representatives and University of New

David Harris, the University of New Mexico's executive vice president of administration, cited safety and security reasons for terminating the Gathering of Nations contract earlier this month. "Money was never the issue," he said. The event has been held at the UNM Pit basketball arena for most of its 33 years. (Rick Nathanson/Albuqureque Journal)

David Harris, the University of New Mexico’s executive vice president of administration, cited safety and security reasons for terminating the Gathering of Nations contract earlier this month. “Money was never the issue,” he said. The event has been held at the UNM Pit basketball arena for most of its 33 years. (Rick Nathanson/Albuqureque Journal)

Mexico officials can be seen in email exchanges going back years, copies of which were provided to the Journal in response to a request under the Inspection of Public Records Act.

They argued about the event organizer’s right to independently contract for services with outside vendors. They wrangled over a contract extension, with Mathews reminding the UNM Athletic Department, which had withdrawn sponsorship of the event, that it does not have to negotiate with the department, because its contract is with the UNM Board of Regents.

There were threats from Mathews that he would “open a discussion with local and national media” regarding “any aggressive behavior toward the Gathering of Nations.”

And they butted heads over the university’s push to have campus police provide security, with Mathews telling them, “there is no way and at no price, even free, that I will accept UNMPD in this most cultural event.”

Harris said he most recently raised his concerns about the Gathering of Nations event last year with Alex O. Romero and Ernie C’de Baca, the president and vice president of the Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce, which for fiscal year 2015 had a contract with the city for more than $639,000 funded by the lodgers’ and hospitality tax.

The chamber’s role is to support economic development and promote and attract events from the Native American and Hispanic markets worldwide. The Gathering of Nations is its biggest client, and the chamber acted as its liaison on issues that involved the city or the business community.

“I told them your guys (the Mathews family) are causing real problems in terms of the continuation of this contract,” Harris said. “You need to get them under control. Alex and Ernie both said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll take care of that.’ So it wasn’t as if we didn’t raise flags.”

But Romero said “it’s not our job to rein in anybody,” though he confirmed that the relationship between the university and the Gathering of Nations had been strained for a long time.

In the wake of the contract termination, the Hispano chamber added its voice to the chorus of those criticizing the university. At the time, Romero told the Journal that UNM should have handled the termination better.

“They could have demonstrated respect for the family and the organization which brings millions of dollars into the community each year,” he said. “How is that not important?”

Harris said he understands the chamber’s irritation.

“You poke a hole in their performance if the city loses the event,” he said.

And that could happen.

Mathews said he has received inquiries from cities in Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, Nevada, Oklahoma and Canada.

Those cities “would love for us to come there, and they are trying to figure out how to get us there, but we’re also talking to people in Albuquerque, and our desire is definitely to stay in Albuquerque,” he said. “We hope to have something nailed down by early June.”

Money factor

If money was never the issue, as Harris stated, apparently it’s not a non-issue, either.

“I’m certain that the support we put into this event is greater than the revenue we generated,” he said.

No less than 50 people from various university departments worked on different components throughout the year in preparation for the Gathering of Nations powwow.

Some of the preparation was done in conjunction with the Mathews family, said Carla Prando Domenici, the university’s director of safety and risk services. UNM staffers worked on fire and safety plans, made sure all permits were in place, trained Hispano chamber volunteers in crowd control management, created the diagrams for the setup of the outside concessions and tents, outlined a post-event cleanup plan and more.

Despite the planning and investment in time and personnel, “this event consistently does not generate enough revenue to the university to cover our expenses,” said Chris Vallejos, associate vice president for institutional support services.

“The Pit, and many of our other athletic facilities, are not wholly subsidized. We need to generate revenue from our facilities to pay off various bonds as well as maintain the facilities.”

In addition to the $2,300 loss for the 2015 event, UNM also claims negative balances of $1,100 in 2014; $7,500 for 2013; and $7,000 for 2012.

“That baffles me. How is that even possible?” asked Mathews, who said he paid UNM rent and facilities fees of $20,500, as well as fees for using the ribbon board, big screen TVs and other media inside the Pit. The university also received revenue from parking and indoor concession stands, he said.

“When we settle up at the end with UNM, we meet and pay up all our bills – security, clean up, bathroom supplies, flooring they put down – whatever they charged, we paid, and not over the course of the year. It was with a single check. Done. Paid. Out of there until next year.”

The nonprofit Gathering of Nations is certainly not losing money. Mathews said the organization takes in between $400,000 and $500,000 a year.

Mathews draws an annual salary of $30,000. Some $200,000 in honorariums are made to Native dancers, singers and some 50 to 75 weekend assistants.

In addition, Mathews said he writes checks for tens of thousands of dollars to cover expenses for such things as sound and light rental, tenting, hotel and airline tickets for special guests, advertising and more.

Any chance that the university and the Mathews family might settle their differences was pretty much laid to rest in the days following the termination when UNM President Bob Frank held a meeting in his office with Mathews, his wife, Lita, their daughter Melonie and a number of UNM officials.

According to Harris, who was present for the meeting, Melonie Mathews, who coordinates the Miss Indian World competition, told those assembled that she thought the UNM administration was “a group of inept, ham-handed chicken shits,” Harris said. “And that’s verbatim. I remember because that’s when I left.”

His exit was anything but casual, recalled Derek Mathews.

“He bolted. He almost knocked over President Frank to get to the door.”

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