Gathering of Nations: A story of rebuilding relationships to celebrate Native American culture
The story of the Gathering of Nations and Wells Fargo enters a new chapter, indicating progress in the bank’s efforts to rebuild trust with American Indian and Alaska Native communities.
Building an event that celebrates and empowers
The story of Wells Fargo and Gathering of Nations begins in 1983, when a group of students at the University of Albuquerque in New Mexico approached Derek Matthews, the advisor for Native American students. “The students wanted to have a powwow on campus, but none of them knew how to do that. We had experience traveling to powwows, so we were able to pull that together,” recalled Mathews.
In the early planning stages for this first Gathering of Nations Powwow, Mathews opened a bank account with Wells Fargo. To say that the very first event was a success is an understatement. “Word spread by mouth and brought so many people from all over the country to dance. We had about 500 dancers in the first year in that tiny gym,” he said. “Everyone was excited about doing it again next year.”
They put on the powwow the next year — and the next year, and the year after that.
More than 35 years later, the Gathering of Nations is now the largest powwow in North America. Managed by Derek Mathews, along with his wife Dr. Lita Mathews and daughter Melonie Mathews, the Gathering of Nations is a multiday, intertribal event held on the fourth weekend each April. The event provides a space where Native American culture and tradition can flourish and empowers attendees to take on a sense of pride in themselves. The powwow includes nearly 3,000 traditional Native American dancers and singers, representing all tribes in the U.S. and Canada; a horse and rider regalia parade; the Miss Indian World pageant; the contemporary music venue, Stage 49; and the Indian Traders Market, featuring more than 800 artists, crafters, and traders from around the world.
“Our mission each year is to boost the culture, spirit, and livelihood of the people,” said Melonie Mathews. “We’ve been able to present Native culture in a positive way. Native people struggle on a daily basis with dispelling negative stereotypes, some created by Hollywood and some that are perpetuated internally. We bring forth role models, like Miss Indian World, to present Native culture in a more positive way.”
Wells Fargo has been a longtime corporate sponsor, contributing $10,000 annually to the event and encouraging local team members to volunteer. Members of the company’s Native Peoples Team Member Network have been key to Wells Fargo’s volunteerism support at the event. The Native Peoples Team Member Network, established in 2003, has 12 active chapters with more than 2,500 team members and encourages team members to engage with and build understanding and support for the American Indian, Alaskan Native, and Native Hawaiian communities that Wells Fargo serves, and to provide insight into Native American cultures. “Since we started the chapter in Albuquerque, the Gathering of Nations has been one of our signature events,” said Kayleen Godinez, finance chair for the network’s New Mexico chapter. “People come from many nations, and there are hundreds of tribes. It’s important for us to get out in the community to be present and supportive.”
The impact of Wells Fargo’s sponsorship isn’t limited to just cash support and volunteerism in the eyes of the Mathews, however. “With Wells Fargo being here for so many years, it’s evident that they are part of the community,” said Derek Mathews. “Native people don’t always have outlets for job opportunities outside of their community. They don’t always see the possibility of being an attorney or in a professional role like accounting outside the community. Wells Fargo being a part of Gathering of Nations shows young Native people that they can reach out to Wells Fargo and maybe decide to be involved as an employee with potential advancement to management positions.”
It seemed like the relationship between the Gathering of Nations and Wells Fargo would always be a positive one — until controversy changed the narrative.
A one-year pause
In late 2016, the Dakota Access Pipeline and accompanying protests rocked Native American communities, and it became impossible for the Mathews to ignore the outcry. With the Gathering of Nations right around the corner, the Mathews made a hard decision: They decided to decline Wells Fargo’s sponsorship for 2017.
“With the event being such a visible focal point for Native people, we decided it was for the better for us to take a pause and step back,” says Derek Mathews. “It was detrimental to us financially, but we wanted to limit the amount of negativity.”
The news was a shock, especially for members of the Native Peoples Team Member Network. “Everybody was asking, ‘Why? Why would this happen?’” said Claudia Gallegos, a Wells Fargo team member and regular volunteer at the event. “Usually I’m very proud to volunteer with Wells Fargo, but when all of this was going on, I was ashamed. I understand the business side, but it was hard.”
“A lot of us here in the Southwest didn’t see the bigger picture because we weren’t personally affected, and quite honestly, didn’t know how much the Native community was affected until the story came out on the news,” added Cynthia Yellowhorse, chair of the New Mexico Native Peoples Team Member Network. “It was disappointing. Gathering of Nations is a big event for us; we’re so proud to be a part of it to bring community awareness and shine a light on Wells Fargo.”
Jennifer Riordan, vice president of Community Relations and manager of Wells Fargo’s relationship with Gathering of Nations at the time, was one of the first to respond to the Mathews’ decision. When she heard the news, she reached out to Wells Fargo’s national tribal advocate Cora Gaane to connect her with the Mathews family.
After Riordan’s introduction, Gaane traveled to Albuquerque and met with Dr. Lita Mathews and Melonie Mathews to discuss the situation. “We met for breakfast around Christmas,” said Gaane. “Dr. Lita felt our sincerity and opened up. She told me that it was hard to not have Wells Fargo as a sponsor, but they didn’t want to put attendees or Wells Fargo volunteers at risk. I told her we understood why they wanted to exit and respect that decision, but things change, and if they do, then Wells Fargo’s door is always open.”
“Our previous conversations with Jennifer lingered with us during that breakfast,” said Melonie Mathews. “We felt that relationship Jennifer had been building with us while speaking with Cora; she believed in the work the company was doing, and so we were able to meet in a comfortable and mutual place with a community mindset.”
Around this time, the Mathews learned on their own that there were tribes still using Wells Fargo as their primary bank. That was when the Mathews started to reflect on their own partnership with the company. “We’d had no historical issues with our relationship with Wells Fargo, and our relationship going forward was not directly involved with the Dakota Access Pipeline,” said Melonie Mathews. “With that mindset, we were able to continue the relationship with Wells Fargo.”
Riordan tragically lost her life aboard Southwest Airlines flight No. 1380 in April 2018. The 2018 Gathering of Nations powwow was held just a few weeks later — with Wells Fargo back as one of its corporate sponsors.
“One of the legacies Jennifer left behind is connecting all of us,” said Gaane. “It was she who made the effort to bring us together.”
Derek Mathews agrees. “It was the efforts made by Jennifer Riordan that kept our relationship unofficially alive during that time,” he said.
A renewed partnership
The renewed partnership between the Gathering of Nations and Wells Fargo is now in its second year.
“This year in particular, we were very well received,” said Godinez, who volunteered at the booth and helped with handing out prizes to the winners of the booth’s two games this year — a spinning wheel and a plinko game. “Everybody I talked to was very friendly, glad to be there playing the games and getting a prize. I didn’t feel any negativity at all.”
“The Mathews came over and shook our hands and thanked us for being a sponsor,” added Yellowhorse. “The atmosphere was very welcoming.”
This was the first year Wells Fargo team member Roberta Sisneros-Haynes volunteered at the event. Inspired in part by Yellowhorse, who often shared stories about being Native American with her, Sisneros-Haynes wanted to attend the event to learn more about a culture that was different from her own. “Even though I was born and raised in Albuquerque, I didn’t know much about the Gathering of Nations,” she said. “Volunteering at it never really came up until I started working at Wells Fargo. I really enjoy that Wells Fargo is a very diverse company to work for, and they encourage us to look at every person as a whole and learn about where they come from. I think it’s a good platform to celebrate culture in general.”
When she wasn’t busy at the Wells Fargo booth, Sisneros-Haynes was watching the dancers. “Cynthia took me to where the main dancing was taking place. She explained who the people were, how they were singing, what the songs meant. That was probably the highlight of my day. I thought it was all really interesting, and I had a blast.”
Gallegos also enjoyed the event. “It brings everybody together, and it’s so culturally enriching. You learn so much, and the energy is beautiful,” she said. “It made me feel proud to work for a company that sponsored an event like that.”
Derek Matthews said he sees a bright future for the Gathering of Nations’ relationship with Wells Fargo, adding, “We invite everyone to attend next year’s Gathering of Nations in April 2020.”