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What to do or not to do at a Pow-Wow

It's always good to see people from many different backgrounds attending powwows, and learning more about Native cultures and ways, but sometimes not everyone acts as they should. Here are some general guidelines to follow:

The Arena:
Blessed before dancing, the arena is considered a sacred ground and should be treated with respect. Profanity and unruly behavior should not be used. Never cut across it to get to the opposite side. Treat the arena as you would treat church. Go in the "door" and out the same way. The MC will specify who is to dance and when, and when spectators may participate. 

Photos of individual dancers should only be taken with their permission, and no commercial photography without first checking with the MC and powwow staff. Tape recording of the drums should be done only after asking the drum group. Video recording should be only for personal use, unless by previous arrangement with the staff. Absolutely NO recording of any kind on Honor Songs, Gourd Dancing, prayers, or at any other time the MC specifies.

Tobacco, Alcohol and Drugs:
Powwows have strict rules against alcohol and drug use in the entire area of the powwow, and most prohibit smoking near the arena.

Arts and Crafts:
At any given powwow, you will find a wide array of traditional arts, handmade crafts, and jewelry for sale. Often this is how these vendors make a living, and sell quality goods at a reasonable price. Most will not accept checks, so it is a good idea to have cash on hand. Please use care when handling merchandise, and please watch your children!

The Regalia:
Dancers wear traditional regalia, not costumes, when they dance. Every part of a dancer's regalia is very important to him or her for various reasons. Many hours go into the intricate beadwork and detailing, and full set of regalia may take years to complete. The feathers or leather may be over 100 years old and very fragile. Please never handle any part of a dancer's outfit.

*These descriptions are only to give an idea of the dance styles and regalia. Every dancer has his or her own particular style, and outfits vary from different nations.*

Men's Dances
Northern Traditional-

The dancer wears a bustle, often of eagle feathers, a bone bead breastplate, leggings, beaded moccasins, a beaded belt, ankle bells, a porcupine roach headdress, breechcloth, various beaded accessories, and carries an eagle feather fan. These dancers often paint their faces in different styles, sometimes derived from their family or nation's designs. Out of respect for this dance, spectators may be asked to stand.

Southern Straight-
In this style, the dancer represents a warrior scouting the enemy. The regalia usually consists of a porcupine roach, or an otter-skin turban, an otter skin trailer, vest, bead or ribbon work, arm cuffs, leggings, a breechcloth, a bandolier, beaded moccasins, and a ribbon shirt. The dancer carries a feather fan, and perhaps a staff.

This is the oldest style of the powwow dances. Originating in the plains, there are several stories as to how it started. One version (Ponca) tells of when, long ago, the people went to an isolated spot on the prairie to give thanks. Some of the men stomped down the grasses to make way for dancing. The regalia consists of yokes and breechcloths fringed with rows of brightly colored yarn (grass), usually a roach headdress, fringed anklets, and sheep bells worn around the lower legs. Grass dancers use many sways, dips, and sliding steps.

This dance originated in Oklahoma and is one that lets each dancer demonstrate his athletic ability and originality. Acrobatics are not uncommon, and this dance requires a lot of endurance. The men wear double bustles, usually trimmed with brightly dyed hackle feathers, decorated yokes and breechcloths, angora anklets with sheep bells, beaded moccasins, arm bands, and a porcupine roach.

Northern Traditional-
There are two types: buckskin dresses often have fully beaded yolks, long fringe, and the dancers may wear long breastplates, and beaded moccasins and leggings. Cloth dresses are commonly decorated with elk teeth or dentalium shells, and breastplates. Both style of dancers carry a shawl folded over an arm, and carry an eagle feather fan. This dance is one that requires much skill to stay in perfect rhythm, stepping lightly, slightly bobbing up and down, and allowing the fringe on their dresses and shawls to sway gracefully.

Southern Traditional-
The style of these dresses comes from the southern plains down to the gulf states. Also included are the long, tiered dresses common to the southeast. Some have elaborate ribbonwork (depending on the wearer's Nation), a shawl folded over an arm, and maybe a concho belt. The beat is slower on Southern songs, and the dancer sways side-to-side gracefully as she steps.

Jingle Dress-
This dance comes from the Ojibway Nation and started in about the 1920s. The dresses are decorated with rolled snuff can lids (other types of metal lids may be used), which hit each other when the dancer moves, creating a pleasing "jingle" sound. She carries a feather fan, and sometimes a scarf or beaded purse. Beaded leggings, moccasins, and a beaded or concho belt complete the outfit. Besides the traditional jingle step, they also use a sidestep, in which the dancer moves both feet along in a slide-type motion, or steps sideways to the beat.

Fancy Shawl-
This dance is said to represent the transition of a cocoon to a butterfly. Women wear calf-length skirts, a beaded or sequined cape/vest, and matching leggings and moccasins. The shawl is worn across the shoulders, and held slightly out at the elbows. The dancer uses spins and freestyle footwork to demonstrate her originality.

Dances and Events

Grand Entry
The Grand Entry begins all powwows (unless there is Gourd Dancing). It is the important first song, bringing all the dancers into the arena. The dancers enter in a certain order, often as follows: Flag bearers first, then Head dancers, veterans, royalty, men's Northern Traditional, Southern Traditional, Women's Northern, Women's Southern, Grass dancers, Jingle, Men's Fancy, Women's fancy shawl, then the children.

Contest Song
Some powwows are competitions (alright, most are now). Dancers are grouped by dance style and age, and compete for cash prizes. Each may be judged on creativity, staying with the beat, and stopping at the right time. Many dancers make their living this way, yet many do not compete, because they do not approve of such things.

Everyone-Native American or not is invited to come out into the arena and dance.

Tiny Tots
Children are cherished in Native cultures, and many are started into the powwows at an early age. Tiny Tot songs are for children under 5 years. Boys and girls that can hardly walk may be dressed in full regalia, and mothers may take babies out. Everyone who participates is given a small gift, such as candy or a dollar.

Honor Song
An Honor Song is sung for an individual for different reasons. For example, he or she may have just graduated, lost a loved one, gained a new family member, or is starting a new style of dance. During this song and dance, no recording of any kind is allowed. After the dancer and his or her family and friends circle the arena once, everyone is invited to come and pay their respects, then take their place behind them to finish the dance.

Give away
Giveaways usually go hand-in-hand with Honor Songs. Gifts of any size are given for any of a number of reasons. Maybe apparently for no reason at all, just to give. Gifts are often given to complete strangers, which not only makes the giver feel good, but shows their generosity. If an individual does not have much money, his or her family and friends will donate gifts.

Men's Fancy Shawl
Basically, this dance is for the men to wear a woman's shawl and try to dance like Fancy Shawl dancers. Always entertaining to observe, as of course, most men don't look much like butterflies as they stomp around. A winner is sometimes chosen by applause (and laughter).


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