Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
The Gathering of Nations Powwow will remain in Albuquerque, moving to a new home at Expo New Mexico.
Derek Mathews, founder of the
annual event, said Tuesday that details of the new arrangement will be made public today at a news conference at Expo New Mexico. He declined further comment until then.
Billed as the largest gathering of Native Americans and indigenous people in the world, the two-day Gathering of Nations annually has drawn upward of 75,000 people to the University of New Mexico’s basketball arena, where it has been held for most of its 33 years. It reportedly generated $20 million annually in local economic activity.
On May 5, less than a week after the conclusion of this year’s event, the University of New Mexico terminated its contract with the Gathering of Nations, effectively ending its three-decade relationship, one that had been strained by animosity and antagonism for many of those years.
UNM Executive Vice President for Administration David Harris said the contract was terminated because of ongoing concerns about safety and security in WisePies Arena aka The Pit.
UNM initially cited “financial and operational considerations” in its decision, saying the university took a $2,300 loss from the previous year’s event.
The contract termination elicited an uproar from the community, including strong criticism of the university from the Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce and Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup. Officials on both sides conceded the relationship had been rocky for some time.
Because the Gathering of Nations controlled the ticketing operation, Harris said in an interview last week, UNM could never be certain how many people were in the facility at any given time, creating potential fire and crowd control safety issues.
Further, he maintained that Gathering of Nations organizers fought to keep uniformed and armed campus police officers out of the building during the event, preferring to hire unarmed security guards instead. That created a potential security risk, according to Harris and UNM Police Chief Kevin McCabe.
But Mathews said powwow employees who worked the entrance and exit doors used hand-held clickers to track indoor numbers, which allowed ticket sales to be slowed or temporarily halted as needed. The Gathering of Nations had control of ticket sales written into its contract because of fear that UNM would raise ticket prices if allowed that authority, making the event too costly for many families, he said.
Security concerns were unfounded, he said. There had never been a problem in all the years that private security guards were used at what is essentially a spiritual event, and where powwow rules prohibited the sale or use of alcohol, he said.
Although UNM officials insisted that “money was never the issue,” they also pointed out that during the course of each year, about 50 UNM employees worked on various projects in preparation for the Gathering of Nations. That personnel investment was greater than the revenue the event generated for the university. In fact, they insisted, the university regularly lost money hosting the yearly event.
“How is that even possible?” Mathews asked. He noted that he promptly paid all rent, facility fees and other bills presented by the university for hosting the Gathering of Nations, and the university also generated revenue from indoor concession sales and parking.