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Expo NM preps for world’s largest powwow

The bone-chilling rain that drenched the grounds at Expo New Mexico on Tuesday did nothing to slow the pace as workers made preparations for the 34th annual Gathering of Nations Powwow.

Forklifts and front-end loaders lurched across the property as workers wielded hammers, saws and brooms. Tents and tepees were erected, a dance floor laid, stages constructed and electrical wiring checked.

The largest Indian powwow in the world will open at Expo New Mexico for the first time on Friday.

Long-simmering disagreements came to a head last year when the University of New Mexico terminated its contract with Gathering director and founder Derek Mathews and members of his family, forcing the event out of the Pit, formally known as WisePies Arena.

While several cities across the country and in Canada attempted to get the powwow relocated, Expo New Mexico General Manager Dan Mourning quickly and successfully convinced Mathews that everything required to host the event was there.

During a Tuesday interview and tour of the property, Mourning said that Expo differs from the Pit because it’s an event center.

“This is what we do 365 days a year,” he said. “We have an arena, and we have grounds that can support a show of this size and magnitude – and I’m not just talking about the surface area. We’re talking about the electrical, the water, the sewer. We have bathrooms readily available. Chairs and tables. I have staff and crews who know what they’re doing and can help manage the event. All the infrastructure exists, and that’s what’s important when bringing in an event or show such as this.”

Event organizers were “shocked and surprised” to find that they didn’t have to supply their own supplemental electrical generators, Mourning said.

At the Pit, when capacity seating was reached, people simply waited outside until space opened up. At Tingley, Mourning said, a giant monitor will allow people outside to see events unfolding on the dance floor.

“It’s all good,” Mathews agreed Tuesday. “It’s been a year in the making and every day has been more exciting. The Expo team has been phenomenal, and giving us great suggestions and offering help wherever we needed it.”

Derek Mathews, the Gathering of Nations founder and director, inspects a Sioux Star decal on the dance floor at Tingley Coliseum on Tuesday. Expo New Mexico will host the event for the first time this year. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

Derek Mathews, the Gathering of Nations founder and director, inspects a Sioux Star decal on the dance floor at Tingley Coliseum on Tuesday. Expo New Mexico will host the event for the first time this year. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

Examining the dance floor inside Tingley Coliseum, where Grand Entry processions and dance competitions will be held, Mathews noted that he was never able to use the entire 108-foot-by-70-foot expanse of the floor surface because the court area at the Pit wasn’t big enough. Tingley will provide nearly twice as much space for the dancers.

Although the coliseum seats about 11,000, some 4,000 less than the Pit, because of the larger floor space and an ability to accommodate floor seating, Mathews said the difference will hardly be noticeable.

The tiered seating area at Tingley also has fewer steps and is not nearly as steep as the Pit’s seating configuration, something that dancers wearing full regalia will appreciate, he said.

Pointing to a large Zia-shaped rigging attached to the high ceiling, Mathews said, “We’re able to hang all of our lights and loudspeakers.” At the Pit, “from 200-300 seats were taken up with lights and speakers because they couldn’t be hung from above,” he said. “We’ll be able to control the volume much better here.”

The two-day event on Friday and Saturday is expected to attract 80,000 spectators and 3,000 dancers from 565 tribes in the United States and 270 in Canada. Dancers from South America and Mexico are also expected to attend, Mathews said.

Nearly 280 volunteers organized by the Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce will help direct visitors.

From 600 to 700 vendors will be selling arts and crafts, fine art, jewelry and clothing. There will be medical and dental health screenings, and of course food – “lots of good food,” Mathews said.

Vendors will be housed in what’s being called Indian Traders Market, a large area that incorporates the Creative Arts Building and an adjacent 200-foot-by-160-foot tent. Another cluster of vendors will occupy booths and tents outside.

More traditional entertainment will be held on the Boxcar Stage, where a number of tepees have been set up, while more contemporary entertainment will be held on Stage 49 under the Pavilion Tent.

“Everything worked out much better here,” Mathews said. “This feels like home.”

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