Thousands in Albuquerque for the Gathering of Nations

The ‘Meow Wolf of the powwow world’ brings millions in revenue and criticisms of commodifying Native American culture

By: - April 28, 2023 4:05 am

Grass dancers perform during the 2022 UNM Kiva Club Powwow in Albuquerque. The event on Sunday at Johnson Field is free. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source NM)

America’s biggest powwow kicked off last night with the Miss Indian World competition and heads into the weekend ready to showcase Indigenous songs and dances, while bringing millions of dollars from visitors to Albuquerque.

The Gathering of Nations is in its 40th year and each year opinions, both positive and negative, grow stronger from the local Indigenous community. This begs the question, can such a large (and seemingly very profitable) Indigenous event, held by a non-Indigenous person, truly have the best interests of Indigenous people in mind?

A comedic video short by the popular Indigenous comedy troupe, the 1491’s, gives you the gist of why the Gathering of Nations elicits such hot takes. 

In the slapstick short video lasting just under five minutes the 1491’s get to the heart of the story.

An actor playing Gathering of Nations founder, Derek Matthews, trips, falls, and has a vision of Crazy Horse (played by the very pale and shirtless 1491’s member, Ryan Redcorn) who tells him he must “commodify” Indian culture to the max by starting the powwow. 

“Charge the dancers, charge the singers, charge the lady singers, charge the tiny tots, charge the piss out of them, hell charge the veterans extra,” Redcorn says with a deadpan, defiant face.


Gathering of Nations Powwow

April 28-29

Expo New Mexico, 300 San Pedro Dr NE, Albuquerque, NM 87108

$20 per day, $45 two day pass

UNM Kiva Club Powwow

April 30; 12 p.m. – 7 p.m.

UNM Johnson Field, 2401 Redondo Dr NE, Albuquerque, NM 87106


He dares Matthews to run with the exploitation of Indian culture and the idea here is Matthews will undoubtedly know more about business than Indians and can exploit the culture far better than Indian people ever could and most importantly, make a lot of money. 

Redcorn/Crazy Horse goes on to say that as long as Indians think other Indians will be there, they will show up and continue to show up in droves each and every year, never caring that the event is not run by an actual Indigenous person, or if the event contributes back to the communities.  

While the video is a parody at heart, one wonders how far the 1491’s are from the truth.

Despite this reputation, the powwow is a major tourist attraction that prints money for Albuquerque businesses. According to officials at the Gathering of Nations, the powwow brings in more than 100,000 people to the city that then spend their money on hotels, restaurants, golf courses and $10 frybread. Officials estimate the weekend will bring in between $24-$28 million in tax revenue for the city.

All this revenue leads to skepticism about commodifying culture just like the 1491’s parody.

Count Wendy Grey Eyes, as one of the skeptical ones. 

Grey Eyes (Diné) is an assistant professor of Native American Studies at the University of New Mexico. She is also the faculty advisor for the Kiva club, an organization for Native students that has been running for 71 years, one of the oldest in the nation, she said.

The Kiva Club runs a bit of counter programming during the Gathering week, called “Nizhoni Days.” This year UNM is hosting a series of lectures and other events, leading up to the student run powwow held on Sunday at Johnson Field on the campus. 

Not only is the powwow free, there is also a free community feed held each year after the last song, typically around 5 p.m. Grey Eyes estimates there were about 2000 people who attended the Kiva Club powwow last year, and around half of that attended the community feed. “That line went from one end of Johnson Field to the other,” Grey Eyes said recalling the amount of people waiting for food. 

In the end, Grey Eyes understands the Gathering as a big event for Indigenous people but also sees how Indigenous people are rising up with their own events, not so much as an oppositional voice but with a focus on a more authentic representation, “We’ve seen a lot of non-Natives try to exploit Indigenous people, and I think (Matthews) needs to think about giving this event back to the people.” 

Artists create their own revenue

Cochiti Pueblo musician Jir Anderson acknowledges the opportunity Gathering creates for events outside the powwow.

“It’s a really amazing and beautiful event, it really brings the community together and not just our Native community but the community at large,”Anderson said.

He is the founder of Native Guitars Tour, a musical event centered on Native musicians with shows held throughout the year. 

“I’m always excited around Gathering of Nations’ time.”

More than just a powwow

Anderson and his tour just came back from a show at The Hard Rock Cafe in Las Vegas, Nevada. They have shows to come at Indian Market in Santa Fe, a film festival in California, Indigenous Peoples Day in Phoenix, a music festival in Nashville and after that, a show in Canada. 

Needless to say Anderson has created a successful tour to showcase Indigenous musicians. 

What he is focused on is creating an atmosphere for working Native musicians to thrive and more importantly, paying musicians for their labor. He strives to create spaces for Native musicians as professionals who are not just playing for that ever loaded term, “exposure.”  

Anderson has played Stage 49, a stage for contemporary Native musicians within the Gathering of Nations venue. He’s gone the exposure route and performed on that stage for free.

“I’ve done that stage and hadn’t got paid. All I’ll say about that is up to each organization and how they run things, I don’t know what their budget is like.” 

Anderson seeks sponsorships to pay his artists. “I hear (Gathering) are paying some of their artists now, I won’t take credit for that,” Anderson adds tongue in cheek. 

He is very sympathetic to the ups and downs of arts organizations and what sponsorships they may or may not get. 

In regards to the Gathering, “We are trying to create this collective of artists for Gathering and kind of make it like the South by Southwest.” 

He is doing his part by producing his Native Guitars shows on three different days on four different stages with 30 Indigenous musicians. This year he’s even incorporated a fashion show on Saturday at the Sunshine Theater.  He sees the Gathering as an opportunity to bring more people to Albuquerque and is focused on the big picture. “Let’s bring as many artists as we can.” 

Powwow Blues

It’s a similar experience for musician and promoter Greg Yazzie.

“(Gathering of Nations) don’t pay people out. They get paid in exposure basically which is like bullsh**,” said Yazzie,  a founder of Chapter House Records, an indie rock collective of Indigenous musicians throughout the southwest. 

Gathering of Nations has a dedicated stage for contemporary Indigenous music, Stage 49, which welcomes talent from all over the country. Officials with the powwow were unavailable to comment on artists’ payment.

Yazzie (Diné) had considered playing Stage 49 last year, largely because he lives in Albuquerque and wouldn’t have too much overhead costs for travel and lodging.

Other Indigenous musicians are not so lucky. “A lot of people travel really far,” Yazzie said. This means on top of playing for free, you get to pay for gas and lodging from a far away rez. This can make the powwow pilgrimage all the way to Albuquerque quite expensive. 

And that’s not all.

‘Stop, and uplift each other’

“They want you to sign all this stuff saying we are going to record you and put you on YouTube forever and it’s our rights, it’s our property,” Yazzie adds. In the end Yazzie decided not to play Stage 49 with his band because he didn’t want to be exploited in perpetuity on the Gathering of Nations YouTube channel.

It’s been 15 years since Aaron Fry (Cherokee/Chickasaw), a professor of Native American Art History at the University of New Mexico, went to his last Gathering of Nations powwow.

“I was on Gathering head staff in ‘97 and my wife was Miss Indian World,” he said.

He’s now focused on the community oriented events as an arena director for the many local powwows around Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

He’s seen how things are run behind the scenes, “You don’t want to see how the sausage is made.” 

Over the years, Fry’s observed that the pageantry at Gathering often takes precedence over the cultural aspects of the event. Another thing he’s observed is Gathering has missed the mark in the past on certain cultural protocols, like having a giant gourd dance and neglecting to invite the Kiowa Tribe to dance, a tribe that is largely known for gourd dancing throughout Indian Country. 

“A lot of folks feel like it’s super commercialized, all about the money and the contests,” he said.

Fry who dances powwow and teaches a class on powwow arts at UNM, notes that while this may be true, historically contests and prize money have always been a part of powwow culture, at least in some part. 

For Fry however, in the end Gathering became less about culture and more about prize money. 

“It ends up being so much about the contest, you end up losing some of the fun parts of the powwow. The sitting around and socializing, eating in your auntie’s camp,” he said. “That focus on competition and the money has some weird effects.” 

He did note this focus did have one surprising and positive effect: powwow clothing innovations. From an artistic standpoint, “The big money powwows have made people’s dance clothes better.”

The distance from the last time Fry attended Gathering to now, makes him reflect on his first few years of attendance. 

In the end, he suggests people should see it once. “Grand Entry is pretty moving,” but much like the popular art tourist attraction to the north in Santa Fe that also charges a hefty price for entry, it may not be as rewarding on subsequent visits.

For Fry who has experienced Gathering in many ways, the thrill is gone. But for tourists, newcomers and people with interest in Indigenous cultures, perhaps there is an experience to be had: pay the price, see it once, but perhaps no need to see it after that. 

“Gathering is like the Meow Wolf of the powwow world,” he said.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

Jason Asenap
Jason Asenap

Jason Asenap is a Comanche and Muscogee writer and filmmaker based in Albuquerque NM. He holds an MFA in Screenwriting from the Institute of American Indian Arts. His films have screened around the United States and internationally. In addition to film, Asenap contributes thoughtful journalism, writing primarily about Indigenous contributions to film, art, and culture. He is an award-winning Indigenous film critic, receiving top awards for his film criticism from the Native American Journalist Association in 2020 and 2022. You can find his writing in Esquire, Alta Journal, Grist, High Country News, Salon and New Mexico Magazine.