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Friday, November 5, 2010

Pow Wow Etiquette

The word Pow Wow comes from the Algonquin "pauau" and means a gathering of people to celebrate an important event. Most Pow Wows are non-profit and depend 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.
We are always glad to see people attend pow wows, and learn more about our cultures and ways. If you have never been to a Pow Wow, here are a few rules that may help you feel more comfortable and know what to expect. Keep in mind that traditions vary from region to region and Pow Wow to Pow Wow. When in doubt, quietly wait until there is a break in the action and ask the folks near the drum(s) to point you towards the Arena Director (Master of Ceremonies /Announcer). Here are some general guidelines to follow:
The Arena:
The arena is considered a sacred ground and should be treated with respect. Profanity and unruly behavior should not be used. Never cut across it to get to the opposite side. Treat the arena as you would treat a church. Go in the "door" and out the same way, not under ropes.
Do not sit on the benches inside the circle around the dance area, these are for dancers in regalia. Seats with blankets, shawls or regalia items on them are “taken” and should not be bothered. Do NOT sit on someone else's blanket unless invited. Uncovered seats are considered available. Many Pow Wows don’t have seating, so, bring along a lawn chair or blanket and make yourself comfortable.
Pets should be left at home. The Arena is a sacred place from the time it is blessed until the Pow Wow is over. At no time should pets be allowed in the Arena, unless they are working service animals.
The formal part of a Pow Wow begins with Grand Entry around noon. When the Eagle Staff is brought into the arena, in the company of the American Flag, or when they are taken from the arena, it is respectful to stand and remove your hat in honor. The Flag Song, Honor Songs, Veterans Songs, and Indian National Anthem also require the respect of standing and hat removal (unless wearing an eagle feather or other powerful personal medicine). They are not songs for dancing. The Pow Wow ends with the closing ceremonies. In between, there is dancing, drumming, stories, and sometimes crafts for children, special demonstration, etc. The Announcer lets people know what is going to be happening.
Photos of individual dancers should only be taken with their permission, and no commercial photography without first checking with the MC and Pow Wow staff. Tape recording of the drums should be done only after asking the drum group. Video recording should be only for personal use, unless by previous arrangement with the staff. Absolutely NO recording of any kind on Honor Songs, Flag Songs, Veterans Songs, Gourd Dancing, prayers, or at any other time the MC specifies. Obtaining an individual's permission is a respectful recognition of that person's dignity and rights of privacy.
Tobacco, Alcohol, Drugs and Other Disrespectful Behaviors:
Pow wows have strict rules against alcohol and drug use in the entire area of the pow wow, and most prohibit smoking in or near the arena. Dress and act appropriately. Hot pants, halter tops, and swimwear are not appropriate in most dance arenas, consider bringing something to “cover up.” Pointing with the fingers is considered poor manners by some nations. If you must point, use your head and nod in the direction you wish to indicate.
Arts and Crafts:
At any given pow wow, you will find a wide array of Native arts, handmade crafts, and jewelry for sale. Often this is how these vendors make a living, and sell quality goods at a reasonable price. Most will not accept checks, so it is a good idea to have cash on hand. Please use care when handling merchandise.
The Regalia:
Dancers wear traditional regalia, not costumes, when they dance. If they are going to dance anything other than open Intertribals, they wear regalia. Every part of a dancer's regalia is very important to him or her for various reasons. Many hours go into the intricate beadwork and detailing, and a full set of regalia may take years to complete. The feathers or leather may be over 100 years old and very fragile. Never intentionally touch another dancer’s regalia, person or property without permission.
If you should discover a feather on the ground (this is really about Eagle feathers, but many children cannot tell the difference), please, do not pick it up! Rather, guard it and notify a Pow Wow official. There are ceremonies for the returning of a fallen eagle feather, which under no circumstances may be photographed or video taped. Certain items of religious significance should be worn only by those qualified to do so. Respect the traditions.
The Announcer will specify who is to dance and when, and when visitors may participate. Listen to the Director. S/He will announce who is to dance and when. Most Pow Wows conduct Intertribals in which the public may participate. Before dancing barefoot speak with the Arena Director. At some events this may only be done by Sundancers known to the organizers. In some places it is OK for adults to dance while carrying infants or small children. In other places this is considered contrary to local etiquette. Ask before doing so.
Respect 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. In some traditions, it is considered improper to pass the Head Man or Woman Dancer within the Arena.
Some songs require that you be familiar with the routine or have special eligibility rules in order to participate. Trot dances, snake, buffalo, etc. require particular steps or routines. Veterans dances may be restricted to Veterans, Combat Veterans or in some cases, War Mothers or the relations of Veterans. If you are not familiar with a particular dance, observe and learn. Watch the Head Dancers to learn the procedures.
Before sitting at a drum, ask permission from the Head singer. Do not touch a drum without permission. If you wish to ask for a special song from a drum, talk to the Area Director first and make sure the Master of Ceremonies is informed. It is traditional to make a gift (monetary, tobacco, or otherwise) to the Drum for special requests. More information about the Drum can be found here.
Giveaways, attributes of Indian generosity, are held at many dances. They are acknowledgments of appreciation to recipients for honor or service given to the people. When receiving a gift, the recipient thanks everyone involved in the giving. They may be asked to dance in an Honor Song following the Giveaway.
If you have a question, ask, just take time to get to know the person you are talking with, before asking a string of questions. Most dancers, singers, elders and staff are happy to help. It’s nice to offer a cold drink or other small, symbolic gift to those who help you.