History of the Modern Pow Wow


Last Updated: 11 months

The history of the modern pow wow is always evolving. Competitive singing and dancing for prize money is a recent change in the traditional pow wow.

Prize money is awarded to top point-getters at the culmination of the event for both dancing and singing/drumming competitions.

The circle is an important symbol to Native Americans.

You will see that at many pow wows, the dancers are in the center of a sacred circle, the singers and drums and the audience form a circle around them, and the food concessions and  craft booths form another circle around the gathering area. The outer circle is the tipi encampment and general camping.

This is symbolic of the life cycle. The pow wow brings the circle of people closer to their family, friends and Native American culture.

Dancers of all ages participate in the pow wow dancing.

When you attend a pow wow, you will see children (tiny tots) as young as two or three years old in dancing outfits. You will also see elders in their 90s partaking in the dancing.

Although many pow wows have competition dancing for money, trophies or other prizes, not everyone dances for prizes. For many it is a time of celebration and to participate in one’s culture.

In the 1880s, the US Government made all native religions illegal.

Dancing was one of the first aspects of Native American culture to come under criticism by missionaries and the federal government. In the 1880s, the federal government forbade most forms of dancing, fearing that all dancing was a form of war dancing. The Ghost Dance was especially feared.

It was not until the 1920s that the Native peoples were again allowed to dance and practice parts of their religion. Some sacred ceremonies, such as the Sun Dance, remained forbidden into the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Pow Wows are one way urban Indians connect with their cultures.

Many Native Americans have moved to urban areas and, as part of their desire to maintain their cultural identities, have continued to hold intertribal celebrations. This gives them a chance to interact with Native Americans from other tribes, as well as expose their children to the culture. Many large urban centers hold traditional pow wows.

The pow wow brings the circle of people closer to their family, friends and Native American culture.

Photography policies at pow wows

Some pow wows, especially in the Southwest, prohibit photography or the use of video recording devices of any kind without a permit, and they are very serious about this. If you are caught breaking the rules, you will be asked to leave, or possibly even arrested and your camera confiscated. If you don’t know the policy, it is always best to ask.

At most Northern pow wows, filming and photography are permitted, except certain sacred events. The arena announcer will usually tell you when to refrain from taking pictures, but if you are in doubt, it is always best to ask first.

It is common courtesy to ask a dancer for permission before taking his picture outside of the dance arena.

What to expect when  you attend a pow wow

Many ceremonial events, like the Sun Dance (Plains) or Hopi Rain Dance (southwest), are not open to the public, but most pow wows are. Everyone is welcome. Some, but not all, pow wows charge an admission fee or for parking.

At many pow wows primitive camping on the pow wow grounds is provided free of charge. Anyone can pitch a tent or tipi, and limited RV hookups may be available (first come, first served). If RV hookups have electricity, there may be a charge for the electricity used.

Most pow wows have cold water available and portable toilets. (Don’t foget to bring your own toilet paper, because the provided paper runs out fast.) A very few have indoor toilets and showers on the grounds or allow dancers to shower at a nearby school or community center.

If you plan to stay in a hotel or motel within 100 miles of the better known pow wows, plan on making your reservations up to a year in advance. But, the best way to experience a pow wow is to camp on the pow wow grounds.