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Powwow Pointers: 15 Tips for Visiting the Famous Native American Celebrations

All about powwows: Find a powwow near you, learn where to watch and what to buy, and discover the best ways for newbies to participate in these world-famous celebrations.

As a seasoned traveler who regularly seeks out unique cultural experiences, I am slightly embarrassed that it took me 40-plus years to attend a captivating one held within my own country: a Native American powwow. 

I attended the Black Hills Powwow, an annual celebration held over several days in October in Rapid City, South Dakota. It was a fascinating peek at some of traditions of the Lakota, the indigenous people who have called the Great Plains and Black Hills home for centuries. 

The beautiful tapestry of sights and sounds remain vivid in my memory to this day: the intricate beadwork, large feathers and colorful textiles woven into dancers’ regalia; the sound of their jingling ankle bells intermingling with the rhythm of booming drums and ecstatic singing. When I close my eyes, I can still feel the booming heartbeat of the powwow, the drums, vibrating within my own chest. 

Truthfully, up until getting the invitation to join a colleague to attend this powwow, I didn’t know that I could even be present at one. I assumed that these celebratory gatherings of dancing, singing, and honoring of old traditions were restricted to people who are Native American, which I am not. 

Turns out most powwows are now open to the public.

“It’s a celebration for all,” says Dew Bad Warrior-Ganje, Vice President of the Black Hills Powwow and Project manager for the South Dakota Native Tourism Alliance. She is among those working to educate people about these inclusive gatherings that showcase Native American culture and history in an interactive way. 

While the invitation to attend is open to all, Bad Warrior-Ganje is quick to gently emphasize this: “We invite [non-Native Americans] in as long as they come in with a good heart and good energy.” 

In other words: Observe and participate, but don’t be an ill-mannered idiot. With that in mind, here is some guidance on how to attend a powwow respectfully.

Find a powwow.

The North American powwow season runs from spring to fall. While there are a few well-known, multi-day celebrations, such as the Black Hills Powwow (Rapid City, South Dakota) and the Gathering of Nations (Albuquerque, New Mexico), you can also find local powwows near you using the search tool at  

Do a little pre-powwow research.

At the very minimum, learn the names of the host tribes. Educate yourself on their history and culture. It’s not only a sign respect, but it will also inform and enrich what you see. 

Attend an on-site orientation if available.

The Black Hills Powwow offers a free “Wacipi 101” class on-site for attendees. The one-hour presentation, which happens several times over the course of the powwow weekend, explains the events of the wacipi (Lakota for powwow); the significance of featured dances, drumming and regalia; and general rules of etiquette. 

It elevated the experience for me, as it provided an informed foundation to what I witnessed. It also made me feel more welcome. 

Bad Warrior-Ganje says that is the point. “We want more people to come and understand what they are seeing and appreciate it,” she says. 

(Upper Mannaponi Tribal Grounds, Virginia | Credit: Kim Kelley-Wagner / Shutterstock)

Dress comfortably and respectfully.

No need to pull out your Sunday best. Casual attire is fine as long as it’s modest and respectful. At the Black Hills Powwow, I noticed spectators wearing everything from jeans and sweaters to casual dresses and boots. 

Because some of these celebrations tend to take place outdoors, dressing in layers and wearing your own shade (hats, sunglasses) are wise considerations. Also wise: Avoiding attire with logos that pull from Native American iconography, and leaving the Coachella-inspired headdress at home.

(Black Hills Powwow | Credit: Erica Bray)

Grab a schedule of events and follow the host.

After paying your admission fee, ask for a schedule so that you know what will be happening and where. In addition to this paper road map, pay attention to the person on the microphone: the Master of Ceremonies. This powwow official guides the audience through events and will announce who is dancing, when spectators should stand and remove their hats, when they may be seated, and when to put cameras or phones away.

Time your visit with the Grand Entry.

If you only have a few hours to spare, attend the powwow during a Grand Entry. This is a main procession of elders, veterans, dancers, royalty (powwow princesses) and local tribes. 

“You get to see everybody at once,” says Bad Warrior-Ganje. “All the dancers come out.” 

It’s a vibrant event within the powwow and can last for well-over an hour. The master of ceremonies will request that all spectators remain standing and remove any hats during the Grand Entry. 

(Black Hills Powowow | Credit: ThunderBirdEye / Shutterstock)

Walk around the main arena floor.

The focal point of the powwow is the main dance floor, typically a massive circle of space surrounded by drums. This is where the Grand Entry and dance competitions take place. 

As tempting as it might be to cut across this space when it’s empty of performers, don’t. The only time you, as a spectator, might be welcomed onto the main arena floor is during an inter-tribal dance, when everyone is welcome to dance to the beating drums. This invitation would come from the host. 

Mind the drum circles.

Drums are the heartbeat of the powwow. The drumming and singing accompany the different dance styles showcased on the main floor, where trained dancers, from the elderly to the very young, are sometimes in competition for impressive cash prizes. In these drum circles, five or more singers strike a large drum in unison. 

For me, it was a powerful and meditative thing to witness. At times, however, the sheer intensity of the drumming made me glad I wasn’t sitting right beside them. Bad Warrior-Ganje recommends that first-time spectators admire the drum circles from a safe distance and never touch unattended drums.

Show respect for elders and military veterans.

The elderly and veterans of war enjoy a highly revered status across Native American cultures. They are honored and celebrated. Show these individuals the same respect. For instance, don’t step ahead in line of someone who might be older than you or take their seat. This would be considered disrespectful and rude.

Speak with local artisans and vendors.

Most powwows have a special section reserved for vendors selling Native American handicrafts. At the Black Hills Powwow, I perused stalls that sold intricately handmade items such as jewelry, drums, and dream catchers. 

“We encourage visitors to get to know the Native vendors so that you have a story to take with you, and you know the product and who created it,” says Bad Warrior-Ganje.

(Credit: Erica Bray)

Sit in spectator-designated areas.

Typically, there will be signage indicating where visitors can sit. If not, ask a powwow official. 

While this might seem like a no-brainer, Bad Warrior-Ganje says there have been unfortunate situations where spectators have encroached on seating that was reserved for dancers or elders—and even one cringe-worthy case in which a female visitor picked up unattended regalia to try on herself. (Please don’t be the attendee who repeats this powwow faux-pax.)

Speaking of that, it’s called regalia—and please don’t touch it.

The attire worn by dancers are not “costumes” or “outfits.” It’s called regalia. This is an important word to know and use while attending a powwow. 

Regalia can take months to hand-create, and its creation is given much thought and expense. Regalia is worn with pride and deep responsibility, as it often tells a meaningful story about the wearer’s tribe, family and personal interests. Although it can be extremely eye-catching and attractive, do not touch it. 

I was so intent on respecting this rule that I kept my arms close at my side while walking around to avoid inadvertently bumping into dancers wearing their regalia.

Don’t pick up feathers.

Eagle feathers are sacred within the Native Americans and are omnipresent at a powwow. Each eagle feather has its own spirit and to be the wearer and guardian of one is a tremendous honor. If you happen to notice a feather has fallen from a dancer’s regalia, don’t pick it up and don’t take a picture of it. There are ceremonies and special protocol to retrieve fallen eagle feathers. 

Be considerate with photography.

It’s natural to want to capture the beauty of the high-energy dancing and colorful regalia. It’s an incredibly photogenic atmosphere. However, ask before taking photos of people. 

“Most people don’t mind it,” says Bad Warrior-Ganje. “They know people appreciate their regalia.” 

Photographing dancers during the dance competitions is usually acceptable as long as it’s done mindfully. “There may be others behind you attempting to record a family member dancing,” Bad Warrior-Ganje says, “so be respectful of the space and people around you.” The powwow master of ceremonies will alert the crowd to specific moments when you should put the camera away.

Families are welcome.

Powwows are multigenerational gatherings. It warmed my heart to see so many children, strollers, and baby feedings taking place amidst the colorful swirl of the Black Hills Powwow. Native American children are even among the performers during tot and children dance competitions, which are typically held during the morning and afternoon hours. 

While you might want to bring noise-cancelling headphones for your youngest attendees (as the drumming and other sounds can become quite loud), the powwow environment can be a multi-sensory place of wonder and cultural enrichment for little humans—and for big ones, too. It certainly was for me. 

(Delta Park Powwow, Portland, Oregon | Credit: Dee Browning / Shutterstock)