White Men Can’t Dance?

White Men Can’t Dance?

Posted By Ruth Swaney April 8th, 2014 Last Updated on: November 24th, 2019

Last summer at one of the many powwows I attended, a lady entered the Golden Age contest category and placed. I am acquainted with her and I didn’t think anything of it. Then some people started commenting negatively about it. The reason? She’s not Indian—or more correctly, it was assumed by her appearance that she wasn’t.

At this particular powwow, it was not required that an individual submit proof of Indian blood in order to compete in contest dancing. I know she wasn’t the only non-Indian dancing at that powwow. On the other hand, I’ve seen many contest powwows specifically state that proof of Indian enrollment or blood quantum may be required to register in competition. For example, the 40th Annual Denver March Powwow states in its rules that dance contestants must be at least one-quarter Indian blood and “Tribal ID’s may be requested.”

For everyone who knows their tribal history, Indian people have been pushed to the point of near extinction. Does that sound too harsh? Not when you consider that the most conservative estimate of the Indian population in this country, pre-white-contact, was in the tens of millions. The U.S. 2010 Census records say that about 5 million people self-identified as American Indian/Alaska Native, etc., either alone or in combination with some other race. Historically when a population declines over time, it means extinction is probable.

As a dismal result of this extirpation, it’s a fact that nearly all our original dances, songs, ceremonies, religion, and arts have been eradicated, marginalized, and sanitized. Some tribes have lost their spoken languages. It is no wonder that tribes fight fiercely to protect what little is left of these sacred cultures and traditions. In my opinion, this is the main reason why non-Indians and “Wannabe” Indians have typically not been welcomed or encouraged when they assert their presence in tribal events. There are tribes that even strictly prohibit “other Indians” from participation in certain events and ceremonies. This earns my utmost respect and understanding.

Meanwhile, the whole “not Indian, can’t dance” theme has been turning over in my mind for 6 months now. I reflect on today’s powwows which are far removed from what they originally were, and I seriously question if there is anything sacred left to us. Today at many modern contest powwows, the dancers/participants submit to a scheduled, rules-and-regulations choreographed event which typically involves large sums of money; tradition and culture is secondary. I personally see nothing wrong with non-Indians participating in dancing at powwows as long as they are doing it with sincere intent and respect.

It takes a lot of gumption for a non-Indian to enter the dance arbor; I’ve seen some laughed at and belittled while others are treated with the same respect as Indians. There are many people in European countries that hold their own versions of powwows complete with grand entries and contest dancing. I was astounded to learn that some were wearing authentic regalia. It was both humorous and disconcerting. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt that they are emulating the powwow out of respect and admiration. Still, it’s disquieting to see it displayed on YouTube videos because it’s such a familiar experience of yet another taking of our people’s traditional ways.

I don’t see my unenrolled non-Tribal ID carrying grandsons in the same light as straight up non-Indians taking part in powwows. But technically, they would be regarded as the same if we buy into the “prove you are Indian enough to dance” thinking. Somehow, I know our ancestors had a better way of thinking about it. I hope we can re-learn and return to it.

Ruth Swaney is Bitterroot Salish and Kootenai and resides on the Flathead Reservation in Montana.

Views expressed in this article are the sole opinion of Ruth Swaney. 

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This design is wicked! You obviously know how to keep a reader entertained.
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Marci Ann Sleightam

My great or great great material grandmother was Shoshone. I know only what my grandmother told me. In are family tree a French trapper married a lovely talented Shoshone woman who was a weaver and painter of gourds. There were laws that prevented her from teaching her children her language or tribal region. My sister’s and I brought are children to are local Indian education group. We had a few wonderful years there experiencing and learning what was missing from are family history. One year we received a letter stating unless we could provide proof of what % of are hereditary we were we were to be excluded from the gatherings. This letter came from out side are group. We were all very sad as this was literally are only hope of learning about are missing culture . Now there is the internet and I have been to a few pow wows .I will continue seeking knowledge and connection even if it only from the stadium seat and my laptop.


Honestly, it’s nice to see so many people on all sides wanting to come together other the issue and have an open and civil discussion.

As far as the topic goes, tho, I have to say let’s leave natives to have their traditions. The rest of us can help support, appreciate, learn and love our native brothers and sisters and help to pass on acquired knowledge. But when it comes to official powwow or special events why don’t we just step back and support? I can see whites and other non natives learning to dance and even competing and free dancing at events, but something big like a powwow I think should have special consideration.

That being said, there’s plenty of whites and mixed race people involved in powwows in other ways and it’s nice to know we also have a place in native life even if it’s just to appreciate and learn history.

Ryan West

I’m white. I start with that. I was in Boy Scouts and was brought into the Order of the Arrow, which is routed deep in Indian heritage. I joined an explorer team that studied and performed/taught Indian dances and tradition. I decided to become a grass dancer, and so far have been the only one to do so in that team even to this day. I always wondered if what I was doing was the right thing. I never meant any disrespect, and always put my heart into it completely. One day at a OA pow wow, we had an Indian drum team. As I was out doing my dance, one of the members laid money in front of me. I was shocked, as I was told way before that that means they like what you’re doing and to keep it up. It meant a lot to me and I still remember that to this day. Yes, I donated that money to charity, not that that matters. I guess I’m trying to say that if that man saw what I, a white man, was doing and felt the need to do what he did, we should be allowed to help keep tradition going. I understand wanting to keep it pure, but if you don’t share your tradition, some day it may be completely gone.

James Mathis

My father is Quapaw and my mother is Irish American. My father and sister have dark skin, hair and eyes, I have lighter skin but not as white as my mother. When I attend our Powwow people and vendors pass me over and treat me as I’m not Indian. The do not know the time I spent with my grandmother and how she tried her best to teach me our beliefs and traditions. I’m ok with that because I am there to remember her and honor my ancestors.


I am non native American ,but I so love going to powwows. I love the drums and music. the dancers are so amazing, and as I see them dance its like I see them telling a story.as if they are hunting and tracking, or maybe morning a past soul or spirit. the shawl dancers look as eagles soaring through the sky. one of my favorites is the jingle dress dancers. the powwows I have been to ask the americans to join in ,as much as I would love to ,I never have. out of respect to your culture and they way I played as a child jumping from one foot to another as playing an indian I feel like would not be an honor to your wonderful culture. anyone going weither you are or are not native America and asked to dance, should be done with great honor respect, and pride.


It’s upsetting to read this. I’m a 3rd generation born in this country. I feel I have no culture because anything european related to me is a distant memory from people who are no longer alive. I’d rather adapt to Native American culture and ways since we were born of the same land. To think that trying to help preserve these ways and traditions only to be rejected on the spot is sad. Remember that no one alive today was an aggressor or victim from 200 years ago. We are a different people today. You can’t take a handful of loud ignorant people and say we are all like that. I respect all people; especially Native to this land.

Ruth Swaney

Craig, thanks for your comment. It pleases me that even though this article is 9 months old, it continues to invite discussion. Centuries ago the immigrating non-Indians were more likely to adapt to native culture including learning the languages and marrying into the tribes. I did not intend to suggest that non-natives should be rejected for trying to learn and participate in public events such as powwows but the sad truth is that it does happen. Native people have suffered centuries of racism by the dominant society and it’s inevitable that some people will project that racism back toward the dominant society. Yesterday at my job (I am a manager for our Tribe), I met a young man who was informing me about benefits for cancer victims as a result of exposure to uranium mining. I told him I’d been on a reservation where the groundwater was contaminated and the people couldn’t drink the water. He laughingly remarked, “Now that’s some firewater!” Should I have been offended? I just dismissed it with a laugh and sent him on his way. As I said, native people have endured and continue to endure racism, stereotyping, and inaccurate representation in history and especially the mass media. It should not surprise anyone that some–not all–native people are protective of their tribal ways and certainly may have an issue with non-natives appropriating their tribal ways. Blessings to you, I appreciate your willingness to read the article and comment.

S. Rose

First I want to thank you Ruth for your comments. I understand and respect your insightfulness and sharing your perspective as the true Americans
I was told by my late grandmother that her mother was born on a reservation.
I remember as a very young child meeting and spending time with her mother my great grandmother. An aunt went on ancestry.com
She learned our ancestors from the maternal side were Native Americans Sioux….I am African American. I always feel close connection to Native American cultures for many years, now I know why.
I attended pow wow with my sons. We do not includes ourselves in pow wows dance unless invited to do so. Which has happened. I did on my because an elder approached me directly. What an honor!
Respectfully yours
Thunderwoman (my Native name given in ceremony)

Chán Wókičhiyaka

Mitekuye oyasin. Yes, we are ALL related. If you care about your culture, you would not consider it exclusive. If someone is fascinated by your culture, then they can only help bring back the ideologies of the old ways. Natives who are imbittered with hatred towards a generation who had nothing to do with the genocide of European settlers are no better than those who murdeted their ancestors. Look at the medicine wheel. There are four races represented. That would be like the white man being angry at the red man for adapting to their customs. I see young natives adapting to other cultures, like hip-hop. This is a new era. Learn your language, the language of your ancestors, learn the dances and the stories if you care; but don’t stop the white man who cares enough to honor what you do not.

Pte San Wanbli Win

I’m very thankful for this blog being posted, I believe it is something that should be disgussed. Anyways I really wouldn’t agree with white people dancing in full regalia. I’m not being racist but it’s our native way of life, I don’t mind at all white people at powwows as long as they’re being respectful and not dressed head to toe in tribal print making up foolish stories of how ‘ their grandma was a Cherokee princess ‘ . Ive heard white people get mad and say ‘ shouldn’t you be happy others are trying to help you bring back your culture? ‘ and that’s not even the case. It is our job as native people to do that, nothing wrong with support from white people but sometimes they overstep a line. I wouldn’t be comfortable with white people dancing but I see nothing wrong with them at powwows. I’ve seen some white people get way too carried away. As natives our culture is a beautiful way of life, I’ve seen my share of white people who became apart of our ways and were respectful and were accepted but I’ve also seen my share of white people coming in and disrespecting our way of life and was greatly offended, to me being respectful of our ways means, not trying to be native, if interested in our ways and choose to follow them that’s fine but don’t tell people you’re native if you aren’t, you don’t have to lie. Just keep at a respectable distance. Our people have endured a lot over the years so the trust is very hard. If you are invited to go into sweats, ceremonies, etc. In ever go around telling the whole world what went on, it is simply a time of prayer, not a magic show, but I believe as long as white people keep at a respectable distance and don’t disrespect our people our ways powwows are good, but for swears and other religious values I believe it to be private and that you should only go if invited or given permission. I think seem natives get offended because they feel white people will steal or ways or because they feel white people are invading their space. I do believe we are all related , I was raised to respect everyone and I do believe we are all related, my opinion in conclusion is as long as they keep a respectable distance and they don’t over step boundaries and follow the ways with their hearts that it’s ok. But I don’t agree with non natives dancing I’m sorry.


I respect what you said. I think I can speak for many white people born several generations in this country. We have no connection to europe so we are lost inside. Being born here maybe we feel that what’s native to this land should be to us. I know it’s a lot more complex than that. As white people we can’t just all of a sudden say, “Hi, we’re here to join.” I agree in keeping our distance and not trying to break any more trust that we have. I totally respect the old ways of living and personally feel they should have continued. White men should have adapted to the native ways and not the other way around. I will continue to live a simple life and respect Native American culture. Peace be with you.


I don’t say I’m native and I don’t say I’m not you will look at me and see the color of my skin my hair my height my Wieght my build and say I’m not but I will tell you what my great grandfather says your white your white your brown your brown your black your black you can’t change the color of your skin but you know who you are …..

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