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Powwow Etiquette

Everyone is welcome to attend a Powwow! They are one of the best ways to experience Native American culture. Whether you're a novice or a veteran attending a powwow, certain behaviors are expected while you're on the grounds or in the arena. Although customs may vary from tribe to tribe or 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 help your visit be memorable. 

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Tribal Nations

12 Rules to Remember

1. Bring chairs/blankets - 

Most powwows will not have seating for the public or enough seating for everyone.

2. Always listen to the MC - 

“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.” 

3. Stand - 

During Grand Entry you are expected to show respect for the dancers and rise as they enter the arena, unless physically unable to do so. Show respect to the flags and Honor Songs by standing during “special” songs.”  Stand in place until the sponsors of the song have danced a complete circle and have come around you, and then join in.  If you are not dancing, continue to stand quietly until the song is completed. Please also be aware that someone standing behind you may not be able to see over you.  Make room, step aside, sit, or kneel if someone is behind you once the song is over and sitting resumes.

4. Reserved Seating - 

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.”

5. Dance - 

Dance as long and as hard as you can when invited to do so.  When not dancing, be quiet and respect the arena. Also, respect the position of the Head Man and Head Woman Dancers. Their role entitles them to start each song or set of songs. Please wait until they have started to dance before you join in. While dancing, honor the protocol of the sponsoring group. Some songs require that you dance only if you are familiar with the routine or are eligible to participate. Trot dances, Snake, Buffalo, etc. require particular steps or routines. If you are not familiar with these dances, observe and learn. Watch the head dancers to learn the procedures. Only veterans are permitted to dance some veteran's songs, unless otherwise stated; listen to the MC for instructions.

6. Dress Modestly - 

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. It's hot in Hawaii but 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. Certain items of religious significance should be worn only by those qualified to do so. Respect the traditions.

7. Powwow Grounds

Powwow 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. 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.” This is why refraining from negative thoughts and comments is important.

8. Powwow Support - 

Powwows are usually non-profit.  It depends upon donations, raffles, blanket dances, etc. for support.  Donations are encouraged as a way to honor someone.  Any participant can drop money onto the blanket to aid in the powwow expenses.  Support the committee and buy raffle tickets. 

9. Giveaways - 

Giveaways, attributes of Indian generosity, are held at many dances.  They are acknowledgments of appreciation to recipients for honor given.  When receiving a gift, the recipient thanks everyone involved in the giving.  Note: all specials and giveaways must be coordinated with the Master of Ceremonies.  Please remember that it is traditional to make a monetary contribution to the drum for this request – clear this with the MC.

10. 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, says Anthony.

11. No alcohol, drugs, or firearms allowed

An exception is tobacco used for blessings or as gifts. Smoking is considered disrespectful, Zotigh said.

12. Be respectful & flexible

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.” It's not only important to respect the dancers, but it's also important to respect elders and drummers. You can do this by giving them priority in line at restrooms, food line, etc. As customs vary and cultures evolve it's also important 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.”

Source: Indian Country Today & Powwows.com

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