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This page is intended to be used for for grades 3-12. You are welcome to use this information for educational and non-profit purposes only. I welcome any and all suggestions and additions to this text. This was compiled from various sources and may not be perfect and your corrections are appreciated. Please keep in mind this is for educating school children about Native American Indian cultures.

What is a Native American Indian Powwow?

Photo of color guard
Photo by Loren Greene

Powwow is a gathering together of Indian people to enjoy and join in dancing, singing, visiting, renewing old friendships and making new ones. It is a time to preserve our rich heritage and renew our thoughts of the old ways. We often refer to powwows as "gatherings".

Singers and drums are important figures in our culture today. Without them, there would be no dance. It takes many years of listening and sitting with a drum for singers to lead a song. Originally, songs were sung in the native language of the tribe that originated the song. Sometimes songs were bought and sold between tribes, and vocables rather than the words were used. Songs were many and varied; fun and festive, war and conquest, honor and family songs, religious songs, songs of joy and mourning.

As various tribes gathered together, they would share the songs of their people, often changing the songs so singers of different tribes could join in. With these changes, came the use of "vocables" to replace the words of the old songs. Thus, some songs today are sung in vocables, having no words, and still have a special meaning to the people who know the song. Many songs are still sung in native tongue and may either newly composed, traditional songs, or revivals of old songs. These songs are reminders to our people of the old ways and our rich heritage.

No matter what tribe, dancers have always been a very important part of the life of the American Indian. Most dances seen at gatherings today are "social" dances which might have had different meanings in earlier days, but have evolved through the years to the social dances of today. Although dance styles and content have changed, their meaning and importance to the the people has not. You will see no religious ceremonial dances at a public powwow. Usually ceremonial dances are closed to the public.

What exactly is the Grand Entry?

By John Wigle

Photo of color guard
Photo by Loren Greene

Grand entry is equivalent to the singing of the national anthem and other ceremonies at the ballgames. Grand entry opens the day's or evening's dance with a procession. The hoop (or Native American flag) is carried into the arena either first or along side the American and/or Canadian flag(s). Following the presentation of the hoop, a flag song is sung to honor the hoop and the national flags. Following the flag song, a veterans or victory song is sung to remember the fallen warriors who have paid the ultimate sacrificed and for our veterans. An invocation is usually given at this point or before the flag song and after the grand entry. The flags and the hoop are then posted in the arena. The arena is now officially off limits and spectators should not enter the arena unless invited to do so.

The opening procession is when all the dancers come together behind the hoop. The national flags and sometimes the state/provincial flag are usually carried along side the hoop to represent the equal sovereigns of the US or Canadian government and tribal governments. The color guard is usually composed of veterans and elders qualified to carry the hoop and flags. Behind them are the head dancers, honored guests and VIPS. Behind them are the various categories of dancers. As the procession enters the arena the flag travels in a clockwise direction (sometimes in a counter-clockwise directions for some tribes) around the arena until it makes a full circle, then the flag proceeds to the prominent point of the arena and stops, usually the middle, or sometimes in front of the drum arbor, or in a particular direction like North. The dancers follow in the same direction the flag goes except they continue in a circle when the flag stops at the prominent point.

The flag song is a special song just for the flag. There are many tribes who have flag songs, and each song gives respect to the hoop or the US or Canadian flag in their own tribal way.

Sometimes (depending on the size and local custom) a public blessing and other dedications and honors are given following either the grand entry song, or after the flag and veterans songs.

At the conclusion of the grand entry, the hoop is posted at the edge or in the middle of the arena. As a spectator, the arena is now officially off limits and you may only enter it for dances and activities when invited by the emcee or arena director.

What does the word Powwow mean?

Powwow is the English spelling of the Algoquian word pauwau. The word pauwau means an elder, faithkeeper, healer, or chief. It has been speculated that to the observer, it appeared to be used to refer to a gathering, since the word was probably heard before such an individual was going to speak. Sometimes with certain speakers or messages, it is possible that an activity, like preparing food or singing, was appropriate. However, the word in the Native Algonquian language is more closely associated with the person rather than a celebration or gathering.

Photo of color guard
Photo by Loren Greene

File Created: 22 October 1997
Last Modified: Wed, July 23, 2014 at 02:59 PM

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Copyright © 2001, John Wigle. All rights reserved. Any legal information provide on my pages are for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Please consult your attorney for the specific legal options of your case.