Why We Dance

Why we dance:
To dance is to pray,
To pray is to heal,
To heal is to give,
To give is to live,
To live is to dance.
                             © MariJo Moore


Attending a Powwow is a wonderful way to participate in and learn about Native American culture.  While the concept of a Powwow is fairly modern, Powwows are filled with ancient and sacred ceremonies, with traditions which have been passed down for generations.  Songs and dances are considered Prayers and a celebration of life.  Many people come from great distances to meet and visit with friends and relatives, share stories and traditions, compete in dance competitions, etc.  As a visitor and a newcomer to these cultural traditions, to be ignorant, or to act in an inappropriate manner, may be considered disrespectful.  The following list has been compiled from various sources, in order to provide guidelines for those attending Powwows, so that everyone may have a good experience.  Please note that Powwows may have different rules for different occasions and/or locations.  Always follow the protocol of the hosting Committee.  Please leave your cultural stereotypes at home, and always maintain an attitude of courtesy, respect and politeness.  When in doubt, sit back and observe quietly, or check with the Arena Director, Master of Ceremonies, Head Singer, or Head Veteran who will be happy to help you with your questions.  A Powwow Calendar for both Oregon and Washington State is provided on the Powwow Calendar page, so that you have the dates and appropriate contact numbers of Powwows in these areas.
Powwows often last several days, over a weekend.  There may or may not be camping available.  If a Powwow is more than a one day event, there are several Grand Entries:  One on Friday evening; one in the afternoon and one in the evening after dinner on Saturday, and one in the afternoon on Sunday.  A brief outline of a Powwow includes beginning the Powwow with the Grand Entry.  Native American Veterans carry an American Flag, which is followed by an Eagle Staff.  Veterans of all Wars are invited to participate in the Grand Entry by following the Flag.  Indian Royalty comes next, and then the Dancers follow, according to their dance category.  Although there are still many social Powwows, they are usually centered around the dance competitions.  Competition dances are broken up into specific dances, age groups, and are either for boys/men or girls/women.  For example, there is usually a Tiny Tots Boys and Girls Dance, for children 5 years and under; Youth Boys and Girls, ages 6 through 10, Jr. Boys Traditional & Fancy, ages 11 through 16; and Jr. Girls Traditional & Fancy, ages 11 through 16.  In addition, there are Women’s dances, including Women’s Fancy Shawl and Jingle Dress, as well as Men’s Traditional, Men’s Straight, Men’s Grass Dance, and Men’s Fancy Dance.  Please see our other page, entitled, “Pow-Wow Dance Styles,” for more information on these and other dances.  Also included will be various Honor Songs, Memorials, and other Ceremonies, as well as Social and Intertribal Dances.  There is also usually at least one Host Drum present at a Powwow.   This is the main Drum of the Powwow.  Often there are many Drums present.  The Drum symbolizes the heartbeat—the heartbeat of both the people and the Nation.  The Drum is also sometimes considered the powerful medicine of Thunder.  Please always be respectful of the Drum, as it is sacred, as well as the singers in the Drum group.  Often the Drums are closed.  Please check with the Head Singer prior to standing or singing with them.  If you request permission to sing with a Drum and it is granted, please understand that you will be expected to know all of the songs that Drum sings.  In most tribes, women are not allowed to sit at the Drum or play the Drum; however, may sit or stand behind the first row of the Drum if they are invited to sing.
Plan on arriving at the start of the day, prior to the Opening Ceremonies.  In this way, you will usually get an overview of the day’s events from the Announcer, Arena Director or Master of Ceremonies.  Often, a printed program will be available, which may also include special rules of conduct.  Please pay attention to what the Master of Ceremonies is saying.  Be attentive and quiet when the Master of Ceremonies is speaking.  He will give you valuable instructions.
Alcohol, drugs and firearms are not permitted on the grounds.  Never come to a Powwow when you are intoxicated with any substance.
Please respect the Powwow Grounds (and Mother Earth) by picking up your trash.  Trash receptacles will be provided for this purpose throughout the grounds
The area designated for dancing and ceremony is called the Arena (also known as the Arbor), and is considered sacred ground.  Prior to the Powwow, the Arena will have been blessed for the gathering, with special prayers and offerings having been given to Creator.  It will be clearly delineated, sometimes by bales of hay, benches, chairs, or a roped-off enclosure.  This area is reserved for dancers, and other ceremonies.  Please do not walk across the Arena.  There are no dogs or pets allowed in the Arena.  Also, no food or drink is allowed while dancing or during prayers or Honor Songs.  No smoking is allowed inside the Arena.  If smoking is allowed on the Powwow grounds, please go far away from the Arena to a discreet place, and dispose of your cigarette butts appropriately, rather than dropping them on the ground.
Children are inquisitive and curious.  You must maintain a watchful eye on children, so that they also follow the appropriate guidelines, such as not entering the Arena, appropriate noise level, proper behaviour around the Arena and Elders, and touching regalia, other personal property and merchandise at vending booths.  Please be aware that pointing, particularly with the index finger, and especially at a person, is considered impolite.  Nod your head or use your eyes to indicate direction.  If you must use a finger, use your thumb or little finger to indicate direction, other than at a person.
Plan on bringing your own seating.  Unless you are familiar with the site and know that public seating is available, please bring either a chair or blanket to sit on.  Visitors may place their chairs outside of the arena.  The benches inside the arena are reserved for the Dancers.  If you are trying to situate yourself directly behind a Drum or Dancers, please ask their permission, as the space may be reserved for family and friends.  Never move a blanket or chair that has already been put in place, and never sit on someone else’s blanket, unless invited to do so.  Use your common sense:  Do not place your blanket or chair where it will be blocking an entrance or walkway, or blocking someone else’s view.  If you see a Dancer looking for a place to sit, offer him/her your spot.  There will be special areas designated for the Drum(s), Dancers, Elders, and other officials.  Visitors are not permitted in these areas.  Elders should always be treated with dignity, respect and honour.  Always let Elders go first.  A good rule of thumb is to treat others as you yourself would expect to be treated.
Unless you are physically disabled, please stand when the Eagle Staff is brought in during the Grand Entry, Flag Song, Invocation, Veterans’ Songs, Memorial Songs, Closing Song, and any other Prayer Songs.  The Arena Director will usually give you the cue to stand during these songs.  Men should remove their hats, unless they have an Eagle Feather on them or are traditional headgear, to show respect.
Photography/video may only be permitted during certain portions of the Powwow, or not at all.  Photography/video is absolutely not permitted during certain sacred ceremonies and/or dances, such as Memorial Dances or recovering dropped Eagle Feathers.  Please pay attention to the Arena Director’s and Master of Ceremonies’ specific instructions.  If you are in doubt as to whether or not you may take photographs, video, etc., please ask the Arena Director or Master of Ceremonies.  If you have permission to photograph, please refrain from using a flashbulb during the dance competitions, as it may distract the dancers who may thereby lose their concentration.  You may not enter the Arena to photograph, unless you have specific permission to do so by the Arena Director.  Outside of the Arena, always introduce yourself and ask permission of an individual prior to taking their photograph.  If the photograph is for publication or commercial use, that fact should be explained prior to the photograph being taken.  Please respect their wishes if they do not want to be photographed.  In addition, any and all tape recording must be done with the permission of the Master of Ceremonies and the Head singer of EACH Drum.  Do not disrespect a Drum by talking over its songs.  Wait until the song is finished.
Certain items are to be worn only by those qualified to do so.  Please respect the traditions, and refrain from wearing certain items of religious significance, such as imitation Eagle Bone Whistles, imitation Eagle Feathers, someone else’s regalia, etc.  When in doubt, leave it out.
A Dancer’s clothing is called Regalia, and he/she is said to be in dress.  It is not a “costume.”  A dancer’s regalia is a unique expression of spirit, often comprised of articles signifying special events in one’s life, specific religious/tribal traditions, significant symbols, priceless heirlooms or other articles handmade by family and friends.   Some of these items may also be extremely fragile.  It is considered disrespectful to touch a Dancer’s regalia without their express permission.  If you see a Dancer’s regalia fall, do not pick it up yourself; rather, indicate to them where it fell and let the owner retrieve it.  If you do not know to whom the fallen regalia belongs, notify the nearest Veteran, Head Man Dancer, or the Arena Director immediately.  Eagle feathers are sacred and should NEVER be touched.  Likewise, please do not touch the Drum(s).  The Drums have also been blessed with special prayers and offerings, and are considered sacred.  Never pass things over the Drum, and never walk between the Drum and the chairs placed around it.  Also, please do not distract the performers preparing to dance or sing.
Powwows have a specific agenda.  Please do not play musical instruments unless you are invited to do so, or are at a vendor’s booth.  As a visitor, and if you are not wearing traditional Regalia, you are not permitted to dance, unless invited to do so by the Arena Director during a Social or Intertribal Dance.  If not wearing their own traditional regalia, women should be adequately covered, i.e., not wearing very short skirts/shorts, or other brief clothing, into the Arena.  A shawl is very useful to have for this purpose, to cover bare arms.  Please be aware that many tribes have a proscription against women entering the circle while menstruating.  Sandals, work boots, flip flops, etc., are not appropriate footwear.  People should either wear moccasins or shoes.  In some tribes, only warriors may go into the Arena barefoot.  In some places, it is permitted for adults to dance while carrying infants or small children.  In other places this is considered a breach of local etiquette.  Ask before doing so.  Avoid bumping into or otherwise touching others during the dance, except for the “49” or Two Step Dances.  In a Two Step, it is ladies’ choice.  If you refuse to dance with the first person who asks you, you must give her at least five or ten dollars (which will be directed by the Master of Ceremonies).  The same rule applies to a Hat or Shawl Dance.  Please use the appropriate entrance of the Arena for this purpose.  To enter from anywhere other than the designated entry way, usually in the East, is disrespectful.  Dances often follow the clockwise path of the Sun around the Arena; however, please be sure to honour the protocol of the specific Powwow.  Respect the Head Man and Head Woman Dancers.  They begin each dance.  Please wait until they have started to dance before you join in.  In some traditions, it is considered improper to pass the Head Man or Head Woman Dancer within the Arena.  If you wish to honor the Head Man and/or Head Woman Dancers in their Special Dance, give them a dollar bill in a handshake.  If you wish to honor a Dancer, place a gift at their feet while they are dancing.  The Arena Director or another person will pick it up off of the ground and give it to them, as they will not pick it up themselves.  It is also considered highly disrespectful and impolite to “show off” or engage in “horseplay” in the Arena.  Only Veterans are permitted to dance certain Veterans’ Songs.  During the Gourd Dancing, only Gourd Dancers and Gourd Dance Societies are to enter the Arena.  Owning a gourd rattle does not constitute admission to a Gourd Dance.  Please check with the local Gourd Dance Societies for specific guidelines.  Please listen to the Master of Ceremonies for specific instructions.  If you are not familiar with a particular dance, please sit out the dance, and observe and learn.  Watch the Head Dancers to learn the procedures.
If you are invited by an Elder or a dancer to come into the Arena, then you should comply with their request, as it is an honor to be asked to do so.
When you shake hands with someone, this is done gently, with eyes lowered, as opposed to the more forceful handshake used in the business world.
Do not trespass on private campsites or lodge areas.
Powwow facilities may be somewhat limited.  Expect port-a-potties and little running water.  Come prepared with water, sunscreen, sunglasses, a hat, toilet paper, and anything else that you feel you may need for your comfort.  It is wise to bring a blanket, both to sit on and for warmth in the evenings.  Please be courteous and give Elders, Dancers and Drummers priority at restroom facilities and concession stands.
Most Powwows are a place where family and friends join in a community, and are typically non-profit.  Often, many people will have traveled great distances to attend the Powwow.  While there may be no entrance fee, donations are very much appreciated.  There also may be raffles, concession stands, etc., where you may show your support and help the Powwow Committee meet the expenses of the Powwow.  In addition, a Blanket Dance is generally held to help defray costs and expenses.  Visitors are encouraged to show their appreciation to the dancers and singers by placing monetary gifts on the blanket as it is carried around the Arena.  You may enter the Arena for this purpose.  If you wish to give a gift to a Drum, it should be given to the Head Singer, who will divide up the gift among the Drum as he deems appropriate.  Please be aware that most vendors, including food vendors, may not be able to handle credit card/debit transactions or may not accept checks.  Plan on bringing cash for your gifts and purchases.

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Tipi Etiquette

Please be aware that any Tipis and/or lodges that are set up on the grounds should be treated as you would a private residence, unless specifically marked for “Display” or “Demonstration.”  In either event, do not touch any personal property.
If the door is open, a friend may enter into the Tipi; however, if it is closed, one should announce themselves by scratching on the flap of the Tipi and awaiting an invitation from the owner to enter.
When entering the Tipi, a male enters to the right, and a female enters to the left, after the male enters.  The guest waits for the host to invite him or her to sit in the appropriate guest spot.
You should never walk between the fire and another person.  Instead, you should walk behind the people who are sitting.
Men may sit cross-legged; however, women should either sit with their legs to one side, or on their heels.
If you are in a group of men only, wait for the elder men to begin the conversation.  Younger men should remain politely silent unless they are invited to speak by an Elder.
If you are invited to feast, you are expected to bring your own bowl and spoon and to eat.  Please eat everything you are given.  It is disrespectful to refuse to eat when food is offered to you.
Lastly, when the host cleans his pipe, that’s your signal to thank your host(s), politely take your leave, and go home!

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How to Approach a Medicine Person

Walk with dignity and respect.  You should never run up to someone or suddenly come up from behind.  Never interrupt a conversation that is taking place.  Stand quietly to the side and wait, now matter how long it takes, and do not act impatient while waiting.
If you wish a private audience with a medicine person to gain knowledge and seek wisdom, or to have a ceremony performed, always bring an offering of tobacco.  You may wrap the tobacco in red cloth and present it with both hands.  Always begin with polite conversation first, prior to your request.
NEVER interrupt when a medicine person is speaking to you.  Maintain an attitude of respect.  Do not ask silly questions; however, feel free to ask what is in your heart.



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