to do or not to do at a Pow-Wow
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:
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.
Alcohol and Drugs:
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
Powwows have strict rules against alcohol and drug use in the
entire area of the powwow, and most prohibit smoking near the
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!
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.*
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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