Attending your first powwow:
The powwow as it is presently known is an intertribal event, dating from the 1880s, and while it owes much to pre-contact traditions, it responds to a fundamental binary view of Native populations in conflict with European culture.
The name is derived from an Algonquian word, pau wau (ďhe dreamsĒ) linked to ďmedicineĒ and ďhealing,Ē both in the broadest sense. While similar gatherings certainly occurred before European contact, once Native Americans were consigned to reservations, the need to create broader connections asserted itself.
In big cities, the event may be held in a civic auditorium or park, but the more traditional venue is a brush arbor:
These structures were also used for evangelical Christian revivals in rural areas throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century; it is not clear whether the Christian tradition inspired the powwow or vice versa.
Once you've identified a pow-wow you'd like to visit, itís a good idea to use the contact information provided to confirm dates (things change). Anything thatís publicized, itís safe to assume non-Indians are welcome. †
The event will include singing, drumming, ceremonial dancing and native dress, including full ceremonial regalia (the word ďcostumeĒ is often felt to trivialize these handcrafted family heirlooms; best not to use it). The dancers will not mind your interest -- snuff-can jingles were meant to attract your eyes and ears -- but experience tells us that this needs saying: donít touch. I once heard of a visitor plucking a sacred eagle-feather from a warriorís outfit as a souvenir. I hope that was just a story, but itís a cautionary tale. The general rule is, if a dancer in a big outfit is coming your way, make room.
Donít miss the grand entrance Ė itís one of the most moving spectacles you can hope to see. Be ready to stand and take your hat off for the opening songs. Feel free to bring a lawn chair, but do not place it in front of the dancersí chairs, and never sit in someone elseís chair. About the only really strict prohibition you have to observe is not to enter the inner circles unless specifically invited. There will be a flag song, and a veteransí song. These events are patriotic in a nonpartisan way; warrior cultures honor veterans. If you have a problem with that, you should reflect on whether this event is really for you.
This is a social and cultural event, but itís also religious -- not sectarian or doctrinal, but invested with deep reverence. You are going to see people engaged in elaborate and deeply traditional rituals and ceremonies, and of course that can make a person anxious about making a wrong step, but really, donít let that trouble you. In general, conduct yourself as if you were in the home of the most respected friends of your most beloved relatives. Anything you wouldnít do there, donít do here. But remember, nobody is looking for you to make a mistake. They want you to have a good time, and they want to share. Donít worry about doing it right.
Please be especially careful about stewarding your environment. The thing that struck me most about my first powwow was this: these folks had camped out for three days, and there wasnít so much as a cigarette-butt or a gum-wrapper to be seen on the ground. I never heard so much please and thank you in all my life.
At virtually all powwows, alcohol is strictly forbidden, and as for recreational drugs, wow, donít even think about it. At most events, tobacco may be used according to local laws and norms, along with common sense and respect. There will be plenty of food and drink available for purchase, and part of the reason youíre there is to try the specialties.
These are friendly events, and people will converse with you. For what itís worth, Iíll simply report that I was once told that itís a bad idea to discuss your own Native American ancestry unless you have lived in a tribal environment or are an enrolled member of a tribe.
You may be invited to participate in the dancing. Particularly if the invitation comes from an elder, it is not respectful to decline. ďOh, no, I donít know howĒ is not an appropriate response. Guaranteed: no one will ever laugh at you, but they might be hurt if you refuse hospitality. Itís easy. Observe others and do likewise. Relax.
There is normally an admission fee (the organizers had to pay for the space, the setup, the insurance, etc), and you will have a chance to purchase Native American handicrafts as well as food and drink. However, this is not a carnival or fair. Dignity and respect are essential values Ė remember those things and you wonít go wrong. If you feel itís an honor to be there, youíre in the right frame of mind.
For further illumination, I recommend the following helpful guide to powwow etiquette:
It is traditional to donate a few dollars to the drummer at some dances. Photography is usually permitted, but you should always ask permission. In some cases, a small gratuity is expected.
Hereís a bit more guidance: