Whether you’re a novice or veteran attending a pow wow, certain behaviors are expected while you’re on the grounds or in the arena. Although customs may vary from tribe to
tribe—and even from year to year—some basic rules remain the same.
Some breaches of etiquette are simply considered disrespectful while others may result in the offender being removed from the arena. Here are some tips to make sure your behavior is appropriate and your visit is memorable.
It is not appropriate to wear hats, swimsuits, extremely short skirts or shorts or halter tops. Do not wear T-shirts or other items of clothing with profanity or inappropriate slogans.
If you plan to participate in dances that are open to the public, keep in mind that some tribes require women to wear a shawl or cover their shoulders.
Always listen to the master of ceremonies or announcer
“The MC will tell you when you can photograph [and] he will tell you when you can dance,” said Leonard Anthony, a Navajo gourd dancer and MC. “Usually visitors or outsiders can dance during the inter-tribal dance, but you need to listen for an announcement before you participate.”
Stand up during the grand entry
Unless you are physically unable to stand, you are expected to show respect for the dancers and rise as they enter the arena.
The seats nearest the dancing circle are reserved for singers, dancers and drummers
If you’re a spectator, do not sit here.
“A first-time visitor looks for the best seats possible,” said Dennis Zotigh, cultural specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian. “The seats closest to the arena seem to be the best seats, but that’s because the dancers stand up and immediately begin dancing.”
Pow wow grounds should be considered sacred places
A blessing is performed ahead of time and your actions should show respect for this religious and sacred ceremony.
“It’s like going to a church,” Anthony said. “If you’re going to a pow wow, you need to honor where the dances came from, the traditions and story behind them.”
Refrain from negative thoughts or comments
The blessing that takes place beforehand sets the tone of the event and sanctifies the area, Zotigh said. Although the blessing is usually not open to the public, its spiritual nature should be taken seriously.
“Our elders have taught us not to dance or sing with negative karma,” he said. “That karma will expand and affect others.”
Do not bring alcohol, drugs or firearms to a pow wow
An exception is tobacco used for blessings or as gifts. Smoking is considered disrespectful, Zotigh said.
Follow protocol and common sense when it comes to taking photographs
Never shoot photos during prayers, gourd dances or flag songs, or when the Master of Ceremonies has prohibited it. Additional rules apply in specific circumstances, Zotigh said. For example, spectators should not take photos of dancers in regalia without first asking permission.
“This is especially true for professional photographers standing in the arena,” he said. “Often dancers are wearing something special or personally spiritual to them. A lot of
dancers don’t like their beadwork photographed because someone can see that and copy the design.”
Another rule of thumb is to never shoot photos of a dancer being initiated or receiving a plume or feather. Doing so can disrupt the spiritual process, Anthony said.
“There’s a prayer being said for that person and by taking pictures, you’re disrupting the connection,” he said.
Pow wows are colorful and high-energy events
Spectators should have fun but also keep in mind that participants are not simply entertainers. Especially during contest pow wows, dancers, singers and drummers may be performing for money.
“There are individuals who do this as a way of life,” Zotigh said. “They take it seriously because it’s their income.”
Finally, be flexible
The most important rule is to be willing to change your expectations and adapt to new situations.
“I think the main rule of every pow wow is that each one is different,” Zotigh said. “There is no standardization. Do as the host committee directs you to do. It may be against what you’ve been taught, but if you’re a visitor, do what they want.”
As younger participants join pow wows, some of the old rules are changing.
“The old rules are being redefined each year,” he said. “Things are changing, so be flexible with it.”