What is a Native American Pow Wow? – PowWows.com

Posted By Paul G July 24th, 2011 Last Updated on: July 18th, 2021

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.

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.

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.

American Indians gather for a drum circle. (Photo courtesy Jeff Miller / University of Wisconsin-Madison)

Yet they still hold special meaning to American Indians who know the song. Many songs are still sung in traditional Native American languages either newly composed or revivals of old songs. These songs serve as reminders to Native Americans of their old ways and rich heritage.

Dances have always been a very important part of traditional American Indian life. Most dances seen at pow wows today are social dances, which might have had different meanings in earlier days. Although dance styles and content have changed, their meaning and importance have not. The outfits worn by the dancers, like the styles of clothing today, evolve over time. It is not a stagnant culture, but a vibrant and changing way of life.

Gathering of Nations

Pow wows are organized by a council that works for months before the event. At the pow wow, the emcee runs the ceremony events. The emcee works with the Arena Director to keep the conference or meeting running smoothly. These two individuals, along with the council, work hard to bring the people together for dance and fellowship in the circle.

The pow wow begins with the Grand Entry. This is when everybody enters the arena. This originally was a parade through the host pow wow town. Even today in some pow wows, these parades are still held. During the Grand Entry, everyone is asked to stand as the flags are brought into the arena. The flags carried generally include the U.S. Flag, Tribal Flags, the POW Flag, and Eagle Staffs of various tribes present. These are usually carried by veterans. American Indians hold the United States Flag in an honored position despite the horrible treatment received from this country. The flag has a dual meaning. First, it is a way to remember all of the Native Americans' ancestors that fought against this country. It is also the symbol of the United States which includes millions of Indians. The flag here also reminds people of those people who have fought for this country.

Following the veterans are other important guests of the pow wow including Tribal Chiefs, Princesses, Elders, and pow wow organizers. Next in line are the male dancers. The men are followed by the women dancers. Once everyone is in the arena, the song ends and a song is sung to honor the flags and the veterans. After a prayer, the dancing resumes, usually with a few round dances. After the round dances, intertribal dancing songs are performed and everyone at the ceremony dances to the beat of the drum.

Note: While this is the most commonly referenced definition for pow wow, the word can also mean “an American Indian medicine man,” according to Merriam Webster. A medicine man is, by definition, an American Indian healer and tribal spiritual leader who believed that physical nature might be brought under the control of man.  Use of the term “pow wow” in contexts not relating to American Indians or their cultures is considered offensive

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amanda richard

libilty issued


At work people always refer to meetings as powwows. For example, “ let’s have a quick powwow with the finance team to ….”

[…] Pow Wows, Native American gatherings, are the best way to experience and admire the ancient traditions still very much alive today. Dancing and singing, participants, as well as visitors, wear superb colorful outfits, testaments to the rich heritage. […]

[…] Take advantage of multicultural events in your community, try different cuisine, explore other cultures, or go to a pow-wow . […]

john wilde

I am most likely going to get a lot of grief for this , but I am a white man and feel that it is a very dishonorable thing that the white man has done to the Native Americans . I probably am not using proper terminology in what I say , but I like many others have been misled about many things in history throughout the world but we all can benefit if we all stopped and listened to our elders and each other and try to help each other learn and know the truth about ourselves as human beings and that is we are all not sure of what we are told and that is why we must always be alert and aware of what others want us to believe. Enough with the bickering and move forward , remember the past do not live in it . Live for the future. live for peace for us all.

Sue Hirsch

Yes, you’re right. We have to move forward, and to a large extent, that means making reparations……as much to the Earth as to the people that we’ve wronged. That is what they are asking for. They aren’t asking that we turn over a lot of land to them, that they used to own, categorically. They ARE asking that we give them servitor-ship of some of the land that they used to own, and allow them to TEACH US how to manage the land properly.

They’re also asking that we stop interfering in their politics, and fishing in their waters and allow them to serve justice on those who trespass on their land and rivers since we refuse to mete out appropriate justice, ourselves.

They could also use places to stay, when they’re traveling over distances to join intertribal events.

Check it out at returncalifornia.org

Vanessa Colon

I always felt envious of the people who receive NATIVE AMERICAN NAMES for the mere fact that IM 100%,FULL-BLOODED CHOCTAW-♡. And only name given to me is my birth nameVANESSA♡♡.
SO whatever name that you was given honor it and cherish it,you are lucky to have such an honor.♡

Patricia Ann Sterling

Thank you very much for creating this website. I think its wonderful to have some information out there to share with others so that we can educate others on what it means to be Native American. I belong to the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians located in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. I will be receiving my name on July 23, 2018 and I am very excited about this experience. I know you site will be a huge success and I appreciate that information can be shared in a respectful manner.


Patricia Ann Sterling

Susan Coyle

My husband is possibly 1/4 American
Indian however we are not sure from which tribe my husband’s grandmother was full American Indian. We have names and dates of birth and death for her sisters.
Where would be the best place to search his American Indian heritage.
Thank you very much in advance for your assistance.


Try the bureau of Indian Affairs. They just need a little information and they will do the work for you. Good luck!

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