10 things to know about attending a powwow

Women in colorful regalia slowly dancing at powwow
Powwows consist of colorful regalia and impressive dances.

Native American powwows combine spirituality with community. A powwow is a time of celebration, recognizing our people’s history, honoring the ancestors who have walked on from this world and appreciating today, spending it with family and friends. A common joke on the rez (reservation to non-Natives) is that you never know who you’re related to, as families have mixed through the years, so it’s fairly safe to assume you are cousins with the person sitting next to you, at the least.

Non-Natives are encouraged to attend powwows, as they are a celebration and an opportunity to share our traditions and customs with visitors. People are even asked to participate in some of the dances.

So, if you’re planning to attend your first powwow, or you’re unsure if you’ve practiced proper etiquette in the past, here’s a look at 10 things to know about a powwow:

Drum group

Drum groups play a major role during powwows.
Drum groups play a major role during powwows. They are the heartbeat.

Knowing the purpose of a powwow is the first thing you should learn when planning to attend one. With that previously mentioned, let’s look at the significance of the drum group/singers. The drum is the considered the heartbeat of the people or of the earth’s heart. It controls the flow of the powwow; it’s key to the dances. A drum is created by stretching hides over a wooden frame. It’s a tradition handed down through the years. It’s a special honor to be invited to the drum group. Drummers are also singers, who perform ceremonial songs in traditional language. Stand during important ceremonial or historical songs; you’ll know when, just a keep an eye of your neighbors. When everyone else in the arena stands, you stand.


An elder dancer at a Winnebago (Ho Chunk) powwow.
An elder dancer at a Winnebago (Ho Chunk) powwow. Dancers move around the dance grounds in a circle.

Everything about a powwow features the Circle. The Circle plays an important role in Native American tradition. While its meaning varies between tribes, it’s generally accepted that the Circle means a never-ending world, where time is fluid and everyone is treated equally. The Circle should never be broken. So, when you’re at a powwow, do not walk through a drum group’s setting, across the dance grounds or anywhere else. Always walk around the Circle of the powwow. Your respect will be appreciated.

Military service

Santee veterans lead dancers during Grand Entry.

Military service has always been important to Native Americans. You’d think otherwise based on the historical treatment of the people. However, Native Americans have the highest rate of military service among all ethnic groups on a per capita basis. During World War I, the United States offered American citizenship to Native Americans who served in the military. Less than 40 years earlier, a court at Fort Omaha – in a case involving Ponca Chief Standing Bear – recognized Native Americans as being human, with legal rights.

Most powwows will begin the Grand Entry of dancers led by military veterans carrying the tribe’s war staff, American and tribal flags. The three symbols are prominently displayed in the center of the dance grounds. Ringing the dance circle will be American flags flying from poles. Some tribes use flags donated by the families of deceased tribal veterans, in their memory. Tribes may have drum groups perform songs for each service branch.


Shawl dancers perform during a Santee, Nebraska, wacipi (powwow).

We all attend powwows for the dances, right? There are plenty of them, too. From Fancy to traditional, each dance has a meaning and style. Since the styles can differ regionally, the ones you’ll see at Midwest powwows include Fancy, Jingle, Shawl, Traditional and Grass (though not all-inclusive). Fancy consists of wearing bright colors, fringe and steps that are quick and barely touch the ground. Jingle dancers wear – you guessed it – a lot of bells on their regalia. As they dance and move about in the Circle, the cone bells will make subtle sounds.

Shawl dances can be fancy or traditional-style dances where the woman features her shawl as part of the movement. Traditional dances are slow-paced and may resemble a prairie chicken as the dancer reenacts hunting for an enemy. Grass dancers may carry fans or carved bones with their regalia, as well as have bells on their moccasins.


A dancer's regalia includes spiritual or family heirlooms.
A dancer’s regalia includes spiritual or family heirlooms.

Don’t ever refer to a dancer’s dress as an outfit or costume. It is called regalia. Each dancer’s regalia is special to them, consisting of spiritual or family heirlooms. A lot of thought and planning go into creating a dancer’s regalia. Don’t touch it or ask to touch it.


Taking photographs of dances in action is acceptable, except during special moments or songs. If you happen by a dancer outside the circle, ask permission to take a photo of them. If you’re taking a photo to use for your blog or an article, let them know. Most people enjoy seeing their picture in a story. But, always play it safe and ask.


Indian tacos are popular with Native Americans and non-Natives.
Indian tacos are popular with Native Americans and non-Natives.

I think the next best thing to dances is the food at a powwow. If you’ve never enjoyed an Indian taco (an Us taco to the family), order one (but, honestly, only from a Native cook). It is usually a large plate-sized piece of fry bread (homemade is always the best) – flattened dough that is deep fried or fried in a skillet. It’s topped with taco ingredients, such as ground beef, lettuce, tomatoes and onions. Lately, I’ve enjoyed adding jalapenos to mine. Just like everything else, Indian tacos evolve. Sometimes, concession stands will have turkey legs, corn on the cob (on a stick). Everything is delicious!


As with any major event, vendors will on site to sell their wares. Powwows are one place to ensure you buy Native American-art and crafts. They can range in price, from cheap to really expensive. But, remember, people have put a lot of time and effort into creating some beautiful pieces of art and clothing. I tend to buy a new ball cap with traditional designs. Browse the vendors for the beast deals. Don’t try to haggle. It’s disrespectful for one thing, and you’ll probably get laughed at. I used to think people charged too much for their wares until I really examined the quality of the product, as well as learning about the efforts and time each person puts into their craft.


In the end, I would say the last thing – and possibly the most important – that you need to know about attending a powwow is to be respectful. Remember, you’re a guest on another sovereign nation’s soil. Tribes are considered their own nation in the eyes of the world and by treaty with the United States federal government (it’s a complicated relationship/history). Treat people as you would like to be treated. Remember the saying “Ugly Americans?” We, sadly, have earned that reputation by the poor behavior of a few people acting in a terrible manner.

However, if you have questions, please don’t hesitate to ask, within reason. If you want to ask about specific dances, the role of the drum, the master of ceremonies or even the tribe’s history, do so in a polite manner. People will be happy to share with you. After all, that’s part of attending a powwow, the comradery.

Our family loves attending powwows, and it’s been extra special attending our tribe’s annual Wacipi (Sioux term for powwow) each June. Wherever you live, there’s probably a powwow happening soon. If you haven’t attended, we recommend you do. It’s a fun learning experience and an overall great time. When they invite everyone to dance (and they will), join the Circle and have some fun.

For additional information, check out www.powwows.com.