powwow manPowwows & Powwow Dancing

The word “Powwow” is from the Lenape language.  The term was originally pronounced “pauau” or “pau wau” meaning a gathering of medicine people and spiritual leaders in a curing ceremony.

The Pennsylvania Dutch learned some of the Lenape ways and added them to their healing ceremonies; these German healers became known as “Powwow Doctors.”  The early British settlers thought that the term referred to a council or large gatherings of Native peoples, so the word spread throughout the nation.  The Lenape people would come together for the occasion.  During these gatherings they held general meetings which would settle arguments between the different family groups, form alliances, and trade with one another.  The original Pow Wows were of religious significance and therefore consisted of different religious songs and dances.

Mother & son getting ready for dance
Mom helping her traditional dancer son

At contemporary Powwows religious dances are usually not performed.  Powwow time today is when Native American people come together, to join in dancing, singing, visiting, renewing old friendships and making new ones.  This is a time to renew thoughts of the old ways and to preserve a rich heritage. It is a social event for everyone to have a fun and entertaining time, whether you’re a Native American or just interested in Native American cultures.  It is a chance for our non-Native friends and families to take part in inter-tribal dancing as a Powwow is considered a cultural sharing event for all to learn about Native Americans and share ideas and information.

North west Coast Elder
Lady from North West Coast

Types of Powwow Dancing


Dancers have always been a very important part of the Native life.  Most dances seen at Pow Wows 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.

This Powwow will consist of many different dances, some of which are listed here.  They will not occur in the order listed; for this is up to the discretion of the master of ceremonies and which part of the country the Pow Wow takes place.  Dance styles, music and songs often change as they evolve.


j0313944There are many types of war dances, just as there are many different Native Nations.  In early times, the ceremonial dance called ” haylushka ” on the Plains and was restricted to warriors, and only the best dancers were chosen to participate.

Today, the war dance is a social dance among the Plains Natives.  It is a dance that requires skill and stamina.


This is a social dance.  At many pow wows the dancers move in rows of circles clockwise around the drum in a side-step, with the faster moving line in the middle close to the drum and the slower toward the outside, away from the drum.  The entire line moves as one body, each in harmony to the rhythm of the drum.


These are two of the few dances where men and women dance as partners.  The “Rabbit Dance” comes from northern tribes such as the Lakota.  The Two-Step is an adaptation of the Rabbit Dance.

Women choose their partners.  Couples, holding hands, circle the drum stepping off with left foot and dragging the right up with it in time to loud-soft drum beats.  In earlier days, if a man refused to dance, he had to give (a craft item) to the asker.


A social dance-the snake dance is just what the name implies.  Dancers follow each other in a single line, moving in and out in a snake-like manner.  The line of dancers describes the journey of a large snake through the forest and up the mountains, coiling up for a rest, uncoiling and traveling on.


Blanket dances are held at many of the Pow Wows to help subsidize traveling expenses of visiting drums. The audience is welcome to participate in all of the blanket dances.

Boy with traditional back bustle
Young Traditional Dancer


Everyone is welcome to dance during an Intertribal – even visitors!  You don’t need an outfit, you can dance in your street clothes and you don’t even have to be Native.  An Intertribal is a chance for everyone to dance together.  The dance moves “sunwise” (clockwise) around the circle and the basic step is the same one used by traditional dancers: the ball of one foot is tapped on one beat and the entire foot is placed down flatly with the next beat, then the step is repeated with the opposite foot without missing a beat.

4.1.1HOOP DANCE (One of the many varied interpretations)

The Hoop Dance represents the sacred circle of life.  The person that performs this dance is the center of that sacred circle.  In the Hoop Dance the dancer must keep at least one body part moving to the drum beat and continually “flow” from one “design” to another, some represent animals and birds.


The Boys’ and Girls’ dance categories, for 6 to 12 year olds, are an important part of Pow Wow competitions.  Native cultures demonstrate a high regard for their children, and part of the learning process involves the intricate customs related to traditional dance forms and spiritual beliefs.


The judging is based on a point system, dancers build points by dancing all dances, especially the Grand Entry, and any special dances announced.  Also, the judges look for how well the dancers keep pace with the drum, and whether or not a dancer stops on time with the drum, even losing a piece of the regalia (clothing) will take away points.

Native woman 1Women’s Dancing & Regalia


In some Native cultures women would only dance in the background at Pow Wows on special occasions and to certain songs, the Women’s Traditional Dance is somewhat subdued.  The women remain stationary and bend their knees with a slight up and down movement of the body.  Their feet shift subtly and the women turn slightly.   By raising their fans, women will sometimes signal their pride and acknowledgment of a particular word in a song that has meaning to them.

The outfits worn by the Women’s Traditional dancers vary according to tribal background.  These outfits are usually made from buckskin or cloth.   People of the Plains and far west often bead the entire top of the dance dress is beaded with symbolic designs that hold meaning to the individual owner.  These dresses may be adorned with ribbon work, elks teeth, and shells.  Accessories include decorated moccasins, knee-high leggings, beaded or concho belts, hair ties, earrings, chokers, and necklaces.  Some women may wear or carry a shawl, and some may carry a feather fan made from Eagle or hawk feathers.

Jingle dancerWOMEN’S JINGLE

The Women’s Jingle Dress Dance is a modern dance from the  Great lakes area.  It is named for the metal cone decorated dresses worn by the dancers.  The dress is made of cloth and is decorated with hundreds of metal cones called jingles.  Jingles are made from the tin lids of tobacco snuff cans.  While dancing, these metal cones hit against one another creating a jingling sound.

There are numerous stories of the origin of the Jingle Dress.  According to one of them, a holy man from Mille Lacs, Minnesota had a dream that came to him from the Great Spirit.  He dreamed of four women that showed him how to make the metal-cone dresses.  They also taught him what type of songs went with this particular style of dress and how to dance while wearing it.  Upon awakening, he and his wife made four of the dresses, called the four young women who in his dream had worn the dresses, dressed them in the dresses they had made, and brought them forth at a dance.   They told the people about the dream, and that this was a new way the women were to dress and dance

Teen girl fancer with fanWOMEN’S FANCY

This is a new style of dancing that originated when women started making shawls in the early 1900’s to replace the blanket and buffalo robes they would wear in public.  This dance, thought to have evolved from young women showing off their new shawls, is very energetic and graceful.  The fancy foot work, the main component of the dance, is done to the changing beat of the drum, and involves spinning and other elaborate movements.

Dancers of the Women’s Fancy dance wear decorative knee-length cloth dresses, beaded moccasins, and matching leggings. Flashy sequins are an important part of the regalia.  The outfit is finished with a fancy shawl and Native American jewelry.  The dancer wears her shawl around her shoulders so the fringes bounce.

Alaskan Lady Beaded Headpiece
Alaskan Lady Beaded Headpiece


When Natives acquired cloth from white traders; they began to make much of their clothing from it.

Natives from all areas created many different styles, some are decorated with various types of shells or elk teeth.

Many eastern woodland, plains and southwestern people made cloth shirts and blouses.  They were elaborately decorated with ribbon and silver buttons.  This style spread in popularity.  Ribbons were used to decorate shirts, shawls, blouses, skirts, leggings, etc.  The ribbon is cut, folded or appliquéd in order to create geometric or abstract floral designs.


Some buckskins are tanned commercial hides.  The most treasured are Native tanned buckskins because the Native tanning process makes the hide soft as velvet.

When a woman acquires three to six hides, depending on the size, she must cut and sew them together. This is an art, and many women take the hides to a well-known Native dressmaker to assure proper fit and style.

When the dress is finished, many hours of beading begins.  Beading ranges from fully beaded tops (common among Lakota) to the  beaded strips across the front, shoulders and around the bottom of the dress worn by southern plains women.  Women try to match accessories to the beadwork on the dress.


At most western Powwows, one or more young ladies are chosen Princess of that event.  She reigns for the ensuing year until a new princess is chosen at the Powwow.

This is a very special honor.  Each young lady chosen represents the event and the sponsoring organization.  She is chosen because she is a fine example of young Native womanhood of good character and standing in the community.

There is a committee selected consisting of at least one elder, and others who have raised female children.  This committee chooses their own criteria for the selection process.  Such as the following: •Promptness •Dancing abilities •Native dress •Greeting in tribal language •Knowledge of tribal history •Have a specific talent or skill that is tribally unique •Ability to speak and understand tribal language •Display and execute appropriate conduct •As AIC Princess what are her/their goals and aspirations •Preparation of a traditional dish

Some or all of these things will be considered in the selection of the princesses.  They will be expected to represent their Nation at various times throughout the coming year, and to participate in all major events.

Usually the out-going princesses’ families will have a special song, and make some gesture of thanks for honoring their family in this manner for the previous year (most of the time they will hold a give-away). They may wish to honor the Powwow committee, and/or sponsoring organization, the new Princesses, and some out of town visitors.  During this special, you may see immediate family dancing with (behind) her, then the extended family, close friends, and Powwow committee members.

The family of the new Princesses may wish to make a commitment of some sort to the American Native Center Powwow for the coming year.