Blog January 12, 2024

Dance, Drum, Community, Food, Pride… Introducing the Pow Wow!

Dance, Drum, Community, Food, Pride………Introducing the Pow Wow 

How the Powwow Began

The modern powwow and many styles of contemporary powwow dancing have their roots in the historic warrior societies of the Southern and Northern Plains. Over time, these dances, ceremonies, and gatherings have evolved from formal, tribal-based ceremonies into modern-day intertribal celebrations of culture, dance, song, crafts, food, and pageantry.

Today powwows are held across the United States and Canada, in small towns and in big cities. These quintessential social gatherings can take place anywhere – from community dance grounds to large arenas and convention centers.

The powwow has become a way that Native American people representing all tribal backgrounds can join together to share experiences, reconnect with old friends, and make new ones. It is an opportunity to reflect on time-honored traditions, while helping to educate future generations of dancers and singers.

Pow wows, by definition, are Native American gatherings in which American Indians sing, dance, reconnect with old friends and celebrate their rich ancestral histories. Often accompanied by a conference or meeting, pow wows are one of the best ways to experience traditional Native American culture. While there’s no singular hard-and-fast pow wow definition, this article provides a brief overview of the true pow wow meaning and spirit.

There are several different stories of how the gathering was started. Some believe that the pow wow originated with the War dance Societies of the Ponca and other Southern Plains Tribes.

The term “powwow” derives from Pau Wau, meaning “medicine man” in Narrtick, a language spoken by the Algonquian peoples in Massachusetts. English settlers began misusing the word to refer to the meetings of Indigenous medicine men, and later to any kind of American Indian gathering. American Indians have since reclaimed the term.

Nineteenth Century

For centuries, American Indian communities have conducted ceremonial gatherings. Modern powwows, however, derive from more recent ceremonies that began in the Plains area. In the late nineteenth century, the U.S. government seized swaths of land from the Lakota, Dakota, Blackfoot, and Ojibwa peoples in the Northern Plains and from Kiowa, Comanche, Pawnee, and Ponca peoples in the Southern Plains. This period of forced migration and upheaval resulted in great intertribal exchange and solidarity among Plains Indians.

Two intertribal traditions emerged during this period: the Drum Religion and the Grass Dance (or Helushka Society). The Drum Religion was a sacred drum ritual that fostered peace and friendship, while the Grass Dance was an adapted form of ancient warrior dances. Both emphasized the value of generosity and gift-exchange. As these were diffused throughout the Plains, other tribes amended and adapted them. They became homecoming celebrations, when families and communities separated by government removal could reunite. These were the precursors to modern powwow.

Two intertribal traditions emerged during this period: the Drum Religion and the Grass Dance (or Helushka Society). The Drum Religion was a sacred drum ritual that fostered peace and friendship, while the Grass Dance was an adapted form of ancient warrior dances. Both emphasized the value of generosity and gift-exchange. As these were diffused throughout the Plains, other tribes amended and adapted them. They became homecoming celebrations, when families and communities separated by government removal could reunite. These were the precursors to modern powwow.

Twentieth Century

The word “powwow” began to appear in newspapers in the early twentieth century, advertising “authentic” Indigenous dance shows. Some performers put on exaggerated “war dances” to entertain pioneers traveling westward. These Wild West shows became a part of popular culture as non-Native spectators became infatuated with the “traditional” Native image. They sought out powwows that boasted the presence of elders, in order to ensure an “authentic” ceremony.  

World War I and II brought warrior traditions back to the forefront of powwows, which became a place to celebrate and memorialize American Indian veterans. In the following years, the American Indian veterans organizations took an increasing role in organizing the events. Memorial Day powwows became major annual traditions, and veterans continue to be honored and celebrated at powwows.

In the 1950s, a series of Bureau of Indian Affairs programs again relocated thousands of Plains Indians to cities across the country. This mass migration created a proliferation of intertribal collaboration, akin to the intertribal alliances of the late 1800s. American Indians in urban centers created new communities and new spaces where they could connect with one another and their cultures. They founded community centers and organized powwows, sports leagues, and church events.

Many students were forced to attend government and Christian boarding schools with members of enemy tribes or groups they would have never met due to distance. During this forced assimilation, American Indian children who did not have Great Plains powwow dances in their culture learned that style of song and dance from their Great Plains classmates. They adopted the early ideology of what was to become the modern powwow.

As the culture urbanized, the number of powwows across the country exploded. Powwow circuits and traveling performance groups emerged. This period is associated with the rise of competition events in powwows.

Twenty-First Century

Today, powwows are held every weekend in the United States and abroad. They are hosted everywhere from reservations to cities, small venues to national stages, for local, intertribal, and international audiences.

Native American Pow Wow Dancing

Another belief is that when the Indian tribes were forced onto reservations the government also forced the Native Americans to have dances for the public to come and see. Before each dance, they were led through the town in a ceremony or parade, which is the beginning of the Grand Entry.

Native American Indian singers are very important figures in the gathering. Without them, there would be no dancing. The songs are of many varieties, from religious to war to social.

As various Indian tribes gathered together, they would share their songs, often changing the songs so singers of different tribes could join. With these changes came the use of “vocables” to replace the words of the old songs. Thus, some songs today are sung in “vocables” with no words, depending on the ceremony.


The outfits are an older style of dress. Men may wear a smaller style of feather bustle or bustle where the feathers hang down in the back. The beadwork is most commonly floral in the Great Lakes region, featuring tribally specific stylized versions of art and movement. Many people familiar with Pow Wows can identify the Nation and area a person is from just by looking at the outfit. 

First and foremost – dancers in this category are aiming to tell you a story. Typically it is one of a hunt, a battle, or a certain victory. Dancers utilize different movements to demonstrate the story they are telling you; crouching, tracking, aiming, dashing about and so on. Many dancers are taught to dance toward the center of the circle and tap once on the pole or shout out during this style. This is done to represent victory over an enemy or victory in the hunt they are telling you about. One stellar Men’s Traditional second song is called the Duck and Dive. Some say this style of dance came about during the First World War. Dancers listen very carefully for slow hard drumbeats bend downward in time as if to dodge artillery fire.


This is considered by many to be a traditional style of dance. The dance look and style comes to us from the plains. Men will usually wear an outfit with long fringes made of yarn, leather, ribbons or some sort of fiber. The dancer usually does not have a feather bustle, and the smooth movements of the dance can either be to tell a story, to mimic the movements of tall grass in the wind, or to interpret a dancer’s vision of what a particular song is saying to them.

Grass dancing was birthed from young men of the plains nations stomping down tall prairie grasses to prepare the site of a new village or site for ceremonies. Today’s Grass Dancers try to dance as smooth as possible as if they are those long prairie grasses blowing in the wind. For that kind of controlled movement, these Grass Dancers must be fit and strong. This sometimes results in some fantastic movements leaving you wondering, “How did he do that?!”

This style is known as one of the medicine dances. The fluid swaying motions represent a sense of balance with the natural order of creation. Grass Dancers are taught that the motions they do on one foot, they must do with the other foot. It is that intentional act of balanced footwork that makes the Grass Dance so spectacular to watch.


Two often time colorful bustles are worn on the back for this dance and can be divided into two categories, Southern and Northern. These dancers are athletes, with their dance demanding a high level of knowledge, songs, movements, and stamina. The dance is one of the most recent additions to dancing, and most often compared to the way “Rock and Roll” revolutionized the sight and sound of dancing.  This is the kind of Pow Wow dancing that spectators love. It is fast and furious. Dancers must be in top physical condition to execute the tricky footwork and acrobatic movements that make this style so exciting to watch. It’s not uncommon to see Fancy Feather dancers do cartwheels, backflips and splits in competitive dancing.  The key to being a champion Men’s Fancy dancer is keeping on the beat while making fringe and feather bustles shaking and swaying all the while twirling handheld spinners.

This dance is one of the more recent additions to Pow Wow traditions. It is believed to have originated from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows where young men would dance hard and fast to impress the crowds. Fancy Dancers are usually called on to perform Sneak-Up or Trick Songs. These extremely fast songs ruffle the drumbeat while dancers twirl about, followed by fast sections with sudden stops. It is always exciting to see the dancers interpret what the drum is doing and to see them all stay in time with the beat and stop on time. You definitely don’t want to miss this category!


Many of the designs in this category of dancer are tribally specific, and while many of the patterns used are inherited, many times great creativity is given to produce moving works of art on the regalia. Moccasins usually reflect the specific tribal heritage of a dancer, as well as the inspired beadwork and ribbon work. These women will usually dance in place or appear to “walk” to the timing of a song.

It looks easy enough, but when wearing regalia upwards of 40 lbs, the deep knee bends of a Women’s Traditional Dancer require a lot of leg strength, good balance, and breath control. Scrubbing is a stationary dance style. Dancers bounce in place along in time with the drum turning ever so slightly. Some say scrubbing is the original women’s style of Pow Wow dance. When scrubbing the dancers are trying to keep those fringe tips snapping just right. Walking style is when the dancers travel around the circle in deep knee bends, taking small steps forward. Dancers who use the walking style want to look smooth, controlled and elegant as their fringe sways in time to the drum. They sometimes recognize the strong beats of the drum, called honor beats, by either leaning forward or lifting their fan in the air – depending on what nation they come from.


Women that dance in this mode are easily distinguishable from the other dancers by the way their dresses are made. Spectators can see the dance jingles, or rolled metal cones that are sewn onto the dress. The cones move against each other making a unique sound. The dress originates from the Ojibwa people and has spiritual significance and origin. Many tribes have adopted the general ideas of the dress and incorporated their own interpretations into the patterns.

This healing dance comes from the Anishinabek people of Whitefish Bay where a young girl was gravely ill. One of the men received a dream where he saw the dresses, songs, and dances that needed to be done for her. Women in the community made the dresses, drummers learned the song and some women were shown the steps to carry out what was given in the dream. As the dancers went around this young girl she started to recover and by the end of the night, she was healed and up dancing with the women.

Today there are two kinds of competitive Jingle Dances; contemporary and old style. Contemporary dancers use complex but gentle footwork making the dance look effortless. They wear soft eagle plumes in their hair and raise eagle tail fans during honor beats to ‘lift up’ the prayers of the people. Old style jingle dancers don’t wear eagle feathers or sparkly materials to pay respect to the original intention of the dance. They are taught to always keep one foot touching the ground to show our connection to the earth and lift their hands during honor beats to raise the prayers of the people.


Otherwise known by other names such as “Graceful Shawl” or “Shawl Dance”, this is another recent addition to the Pow Wow scene. The movements are very athletic and songs can be just as fast as the men’s fancy dance. Many people say that the movements are to reflect the beating wings of birds or even the butterfly. The Shawl is generally worn over the shoulders and has patterns that can be simple to complex, showing amazing artwork by accomplished artisans. Beadwork in the outfits is usually matching and reflects on the hours of work gone into creating a unique look for each dancer.

Like Jingle, there are Contemporary and Old Style Fancy Shawl dancers. Contemporary shawl dancers are spinning, kicking, twirling, leaping and traveling as fast and as furious as the men’s fancy dancers, but light on their feet. The goal is to look as if you are floating about the dance arena and barely ever touch the ground. Old style dancers are still quick on their feet, but there is usually less spinning involved. The focus is to marry intricate footwork with smooth shawling to make for a seamless performance.

Pow wows have changed over the years. However, they are still gatherings where Indian people can share part of their tribal traditions and culture. But they should not be confused with other tribal customs and ceremonies that are not performed or shared in public gatherings. 

Pow wows have changed over the years. However, they are still gatherings where Indian people can share part of their tribal traditions and culture.