To Native Americans, a powwow is a time to gather and honor traditions. To a non-native, a powwow may be intimidating as it is a traditional event. However, all are welcomed and encouraged to attend powwows! Here are eight things to know in preparation for attending this traditional celebration of indigenous peoples’ heritage.
The most important thing to remember when attending a powwow as a guest is to be respectful. Ask questions if you are unsure of the proper etiquette, and keep an open mind to this traditional ceremony. The purpose of a powwow is to honor the traditions of the tribe, make new friends, and rekindle old friendships.
A good rule of thumb is to listen to the master of ceremonies and watch the crowd. For example, there will be times where you should be standing out of respect for some songs.
Everything revolves around the circle at a powwow. It represents the never-ending cycle of life and has no beginning or end. It should be noted that you are not to walk through the middle of the circle, as it is special space. Always walk around the circle.
The drum circle is very important and always prominent at a powwow. The drums represent uniting the people and is the heartbeat of the gathering. The drum circle controls the energy of the powwow and is an integral part of controlling the flow and pace of the dancing.
One of the most beautiful and outstanding things at a powwow are the gorgeous beaded articles and accessories worn by the dancers and powwow participants.
One important thing to remember about this native dress is that these are not costumes, but should be referred to as regalia.
Each dancer’s regalia is special them as they are typically handmade and are considered to be spiritual articles. Each piece can take months to complete and may have been passed down for generations.
Remember to ask a dancer before touching their regalia and before you take photos of them outside of the circle. If you are unsure of when photos are permitted, be sure to listen to the master of ceremonies. They will help to clarify when photography is not permitted.
Honoring Military and Elders
Another important aspect of a powwow is the honoring the military and the Elders. First off, this means if you see an elder who needs a seat, offer yours.
At the beginning of the powwow during the grand entry, the Eagle staff, tribal flags, and the American flag are often carried by military veterans out of respect for their service (the American flag is included in the Tribal flag procession out of respect). Soldiers are given the same consideration as warriors of the past, and they fought under that flag.
During the powwow there may also be special songs in honor of military veterans and special ceremonies honoring Tribal military veterans. Be sure to keep an ear on the MC so you don’t miss out!
Listen to the MC for instructions during special songs and dances. Again, he will indicate whether photography is permitted.
There are six types of dances that are performed at a traditional pow wow, the Men’s Traditional Dance, Men’s Fancy Dance, Men’s Grass Dance, Women’s Traditional Dance, Women’s Fancy Shawl Dance, and the Jingle Dress Dance.
Each dance has a meaning and is considered a celebration of Native American culture. Sometimes, there is an inter-tribal dance where anyone may join and dance within the circle. Listen to the Emcee for your cue if you are interested in joining in.
Those dancing are not considered performers, but are honoring their traditions and paying homage to their ancestors ancient culture, so be respectful and pay attention to the MC for instructions on when to stand for certain dances and when photography or video may be prohibited.
When You Can Take Photos
A powwow may seem like the perfect opportunity for photography, but there are instances where it may not be appropriate and considered disrespectful.
When in doubt, ask the MC when it would be appropriate to snap a pic and listen for photo instructions during special songs and dances. Taking pictures of dancers as they are dancing in the circle during most songs is okay, but be sure to ask the dancers if its OK to snap a picture of them when they’re outside of the circle.
What to Leave at Home
Alcohol, firearms, and drugs are not permitted. Service dogs are allowed, however it is the respectful thing to leave a pet dog at home.
All are welcome to a powwow. Attending a powwow is the perfect way to learn about Native American culture and traditions. It is also a gathering full of music, dancing, and friends new and old. Talk to those attending and make a few friends yourself! Be respectful of these traditions. Learn about this important culture and keep an open mind.