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Proper Etiquette for Attending A Native American Powwow

Updated on June 2, 2013


If you have ever been to a Native American Powwow, you've probably encountered a variety of attitudes that define what a powwow is. Some will tell you it's a social gathering and others will tell you it's a ceremony. For some tribes, powwow is a show, a primary source of income for the host tribe. The purpose of a Native American or American Indian powwow is as diverse as the many tribes who host them.

Since the majority of readers here will be non-Indians (I presume), I will provide you with definitions you can relate to.

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary for Children: Function: noun

  1. an American Indian ceremony or social gathering
  2. a meeting for discussion

  1. (among North American Indians) a ceremony, especially one accompanied by magic, feasting, and dancing, performed for the cure of disease, success in a hunt, etc.
  2. a council or conference of or with Indians.
  3. (among North American Indians) a priest or shaman.
  4. Informal . any conference or meeting.

Oxford Dictionary:

  1. a North American Indian ceremony involving feasting and dancing
  2. a conference or meeting for discussion, especially among friends or colleagues

Obviously, there are similarities in each of the definitions. They all agree that a powwow is a gathering of Native Americans or, Indians. By subscribing to that definition, one must assume then that non-Indians are guests of these gatherings, and as such, should conduct themselves as guests.

So, before we get started, let's define the word "guest". Various dictionaries define a guest as:

  1. a person who spends some time at another person's home in some social activity, as a visit, dinner, or party.
  2. a person who receives the hospitality of a club, a city, or the like.
  3. a person who patronizes a hotel, restaurant, etc., for the lodging, food, or entertainment it provides.

When you are a guest in someone's home or business, your host and their property should be respected. In opening their door to you, they are trusting that you will not take what does not belong to you, and that you will leave the property in the same condition in which you found it.

It's Not a Costume So Don't Touch It Without Asking.

There are many things that non-Indians need to know before attending their first powwow and none is more important than this. Each piece of Native American clothing holds special significance to the dancer wearing them. The dresses, leggings, breastplates, fans, and moccasins that you admire are NOT costumes. Please, refer to them as "regalia".

Dancers invest hundreds of hours into the creation of their regalia. Each part of the regalia holds significance to them, whether they made it themselves or received it as a gift. Each bead is sewn by hand. Shawl fringe takes many hours to prepare and apply. It may have taken years for a dancer to acquire enough feathers to build that beautiful bustle. At first glance, you may not notice all the detailed work but the dancer knows. Their regalia is personal. The patterns or colors hold personal meaning for the dancer. Aways show your respect.

Never touch a dancers regalia without asking!

Listen To The MC and Learn!

If you are a non-Indian, you can learn a lot by listening to the MC at a powwow. Everything is not for everybody at a Powwow.

The Dance Arena: The powwow dance circle is prepared before the powwow begins. Prayers are offered for the circle to be blessed. From that point forward, the dance circle should be considered sacred ground and treated as such. Please don't ever throw trash into the circle or enter the circle without an invitation. Some dances are just for women and some for men. Some are dances to honor Veterans of the Armed Services. There may be exhibition dances such as the Eagle Dance or Hoop Dance and there may even be a blanket dance to collect financial support for someone. And for guests or non-Indians, there may be Round dances where you will be invited to join in. Listen to the MC. They will explain the dance and let you know when it is okay to enter the dance circle.

Seating: Generally there will be seats or bales of hay around the perimeter of the circle. This seating is designated for the dancers. Bring your own chairs or blankets and sit outside the circle to enjoy the dancing.

Taking Pictures: Taking photos can also get you in trouble. Most dancers are happy for you to take their photographs but please...ask first. It is the respectful thing to do. This rule should also be applied to the dance circle. Some dances should not be photographed. Listen to the MC. They will tell you when it is okay to take photographs of the dance circle.

Round Dance - shared with non-Indians
Round Dance - shared with non-Indians

Competition Dance and Prize Money

Many powwows pay prize money to dancers. The reasons vary. Small Indian tribes may pay out prize money to ensure they attract enough dancers to provide a good experience to the public. Others may pay prize money to help defray the costs of travel to those Native People who travel from town to town all year to dance. Most will only offer prize money to BIA registered Indians. Don't be offended. There are legitimate reasons for this policy.

The policies of who and how to pay out prize monies may change from year to year or vary from tribe to tribe. Try to understand that the reasons are not intended to be a personal insult to you. Hosting a powwow is a major financial investment for smaller tribes and the policies are made for the greater good of the tribe and Native dancers. Be happy dancing and don't let the competition or money keep you away.

As a non-Indian, the chances are that you powwow on weekends and have a full-time job during the week. Many traditional dancers do not. Dancing is their livelihood and without the prize money they could not make it to the next powwow. Powwow is a way of life for them, not a hobby. Try to understand. You are a guest!

The Drum

If you have attended more than one powwow, you have probably found yourself drawn to the drumming. There are two kinds of songs, Northern and Southern. Northern songs are sung in a higher key. There are honor beats, straight beats, and round dance beats. Most drum songs have been passed down through generations and are sung in a native language.

The drum is said to represent the heartbeat of the People and the heartbeat of Mother Earth. Follow these simple rules of etiquette for the drum and singers.

  • Always approach the drum and singers with respect.
  • Do not touch the drum.
  • Do not record the drum without asking permission.


Powwow, whether defined as a ceremony or fundraiser is meant to be a time of celebration. Respect is the key for non-Indians to have a positive powwow experience. What do you expect from a guest in your home? You would not want them to touch your most sacred items or to wear your clothes without asking. You would not want them to make fun of your decorating style or to leave trash on your lawn. Treat your powwow hosts as you would like to be treated and you will be guaranteed a great experience.

Proper powwow etiquette can be summarized:

  • bring your own chair
  • when in doubt, ask
  • respect diversity and don't criticize
  • don't touch without permission
  • don't photograph without asking

There is much to be learned and enjoyed at a powwow. Talk to the vendors. They are usually happy to explain their crafts and most are willing to negotiate their prices. You'll find beautiful artisan jewelry, books, clothing, music, pottery, blankets, rugs, and more. Many vendors also have great gifts for children such as flutes, bracelets, etc. Powwow is a great place to introduce your children to the wonderful fabric of diversity and respect for other cultures. And they always enjoy getting into the dance circle.

Powwow food is a treat too. Try an Indian Taco or Buffalo burger, corn chowder or fry-bread sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. It's not great for the waistline but it sure tastes yummy.

Powwows are meant to be fun. Just remember that you are a guest and...enjoy!

© 2012 Linda Crist, All rights reserved.

Read more of my hubs here.


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