A pow-wow (sometimes powwow or pow wow) is a gathering of Native Americans. It derives from the Narragansett word powwaw, meaning shaman . It since came to be used to describe any gathering of Native Americans of any tribe, and as such is occasionally heard in older Western movies.

An early twenty-first century pow-wow is a specific type of event held by Native Americans. Typically, a pow-wow consists of many members of the Native American community in a particular area gathering together to dance, sing, socialize, and generally have a good time. Pow-wow's can vary in length from a single session of about 5-6 hours to three days with one to three sessions a day. Major pow-wows or pow-wows called for a special occasion can be up to one week long.


Planning for a pow-wow generally begins months, perhaps even a year, in advance of the event by a group of people known as the pow-wow committee.

Pow-wow committee

The powwow committee consists of a number of indivuals who do all the planning prior to the event. If a powwow has a sponsor, such as a tribe, college, or orginization, many or all members of the committee may come from that group. The committee is responsible to recruit and hire the head staff, publicize the pow-wow, secure a location, and recruit vendors who pay for the right to set up and sell at the pow-wow.

Head staff

The head staff of a pow-wow are the people who run the event on the day or days it actually occures. They are generally hired by the pow-wow committee several months in advance, as the quality of the head staff can have an impact on attendance.

Arena director

The arena director is the man in charge during the pow-wow, and the rest of the head staff reports to him. Sometimes the arena director is refered to as the whip man, sometimes the whip man is the arena director's assistant, and many pow-wows don't have a whip man. The arena director is repsonsible for making sure dancers are dancing during the pow-wow, that the drums know what song to sing, if there are contests the arena director is ultimatly responsible for providing judges, though often he has another assistant who is the head judge. The arena director is also responsible for organizing any ceremonies that may be required during the pow-wow, such as when an eagle feather is dropped.

Master of ceremonies

The master of ceremonies, or MC, is the voice of the pow-wow. It is his job to keep the singers, dancers, and general public informed as to what is happening. The MC sets the schedule of events, and maintains the drum rotation, or order of when each drum group gets to sing. The MC is also responsible for filling any dead air time that may occur during the pow-wow, often with bad jokes. The MC often runs any raffels or other contests that may happen druing the pow-wow.

Head dancers

The head dancers consist of the Head Man Dancer and the Head Woman Dancer, and often Head Tean Dancers, Head Little Boy and Girl Dancers, Head Golden Age Dancers, and a Head Gourd Dancer if the pow-wow will be having gourd dancing. The head dancers are responsible for leading the other dancers during a song, and often dancers will not enter the arena unless the head dancers are already out dancing. The head dancers also lead the other dancers in the grand entry or parade of dancers that opens a pow-wow.

Drum group Mystic River performs in 1998

Host drums

The Host Drum of the pow-wow is a drum group responsible for providing music for the dancers to dance to. At an Intertribal pow-wow generally two or more drums are hired to be the host drums, often a Host Northern Drum and a Host Southern Drum. Each drum has a Lead Singer who runs his drum and leads his singers while singing. Host drums are responsible for singing the songs at the beginning and end of a pow-wow session, generally a starting song, the grand entry song, a flag song, and a veterans or victory song to start the pow-wow, and a flag song, retreat song and closing song to end the pow-wow. Additionally, if a pow-wow has gourd dancing, the Southern Host Drum is often the drum that sings all the gourd songs, though another drum can perform them. The host drums are often called upon to sing speical songs during the pow-wow.

The event

Set up

A pow-wow is normally set up as a series of large circles. The center circle is the dance arena, outside of which is a circle consisting of the MC's table, drum groups, and sitting areas for dancers and their families. At outdoor pow-wows, this circle is often covered by either a committee built arbor, or each group will provide their own sun shade. Beyond these two circles for participants is often an area for spectators, while outside of all are several rings of vendor's booths, where one can buy supplies, food, or arts and crafts items.


A pow-wow session begins with the Grand Entry, during which all the dancers line up by dance style and age, then enter the arena while one of the host drums sings a special song. Normally, the first in are veterans carrying flags and eagle staffs, followed by the head dancers, then the dancers follow in a specific order: Men's Traditional, Men's Grass Dance, Men's Fancy, Women's Traditional, Women's Jingle, and Women's Fancy. Teens and small children then follow in the same order. Following the Grand Entry, the MC will invite a respected member of the community to give an invocation. The host drum that did not sing the Grand Entry song will then sing a Flag Song, followed by a Victory or Veterans' Song, during which the flags and staffs are posted at the MC's table.


Most of the various types of dances performed at a pow-wow are decended from the dances of the Plains tribes of Canada and the United States. Besides those for the opening and closing of a pow-wow session, the most common is the intertribal, where a drum will sing a song and anyone who wants to can come and dance. Similar dances are the trot dance, called a crow hop when performed by a northern drum or a horse stealing song by a southern drum, and the round dance or side step. Each of these songs have a different step to be used during them, but are open for dancers of any style.

In addition to the open dances, contests dances for a particular style and age group are often held, with the top winners receiving a cash prize. To compete in a contest the dancer must be in an outfit appropriate for the competition.

Normal intertribal dancing is an individual activity, but there are also couples and group dances. Couples dances include the two step and owl dance. In a two step each couple followes the lead of the head dancers, forming a line behind them, whereas in an owl dance each couple dances alone. Group dances include the Snake and Buffalo dance, where the group dances to mimic the motions of a snake in the beginning of the dance, then change to mimic the actions of a herd of buffalo.

At pow-wows where there is a large Southern Plains community in the area, the Gourd Dance is often included before the start of the pow-wow sessions. The gourd dance originated with the Kiowa tribe, from whence it spread, and is a society dance for veterans and their families. Unlike other dances, the gourd dance is normally performed with the drum in the center of the dance arena, not on the side.

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Pow-wow is also a name given to a system of American folk religion and magic associated with the Pennsylvania Dutch. See Pow-wow (folk magic).