What is a Pow Wow?

The Pow Wow is a gathering of nations that is very spiritual, that is unlike anything in the culture of non-natives.

The Pow Wow is a native expression of a way of life for Natives across Canada and the United States.

To non-natives, it is a spectacular show of colour in motion; to North American Indians, the Pow Wow is a much greater event.

No matter what kind of Indian they are:  Ojibwa, Iroquois or Sioux descent, all are welcome to join in the intertribal festivities.

All through Northern America, from early spring to late fall, Natives travel long distances to get together and celebrate their culture through song and dance.

In the year 1534, the first recorded account of native dancing was witnessed by Jacques Cartier.

He first arrived at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River.  He witnessed there seven canoes of Indian warriors dancing, at the same time the women were knee-deep in the water dancing as well.  These Indians were Algonquin.

The story behind the name "Pow Wow" is a simple one.  The Europeans started to use this word to describe the gathering of natives.  The real meanng of "Pow Wow" is "Medicine Man".

The Algonquin Indians of New England were a big part of the development of the "Pow Wow" as we know it today.

George Catlin is the greatest source of information because he spent eight years with the Sioux Indians in the 1830s.

With pride and dignity, First Nations come together at the Pow Wow's across Canada and the U.S.A. today.

The Grand Entry

The Grand Entry is to show that the dancing and singing is about to begin.

All of the dancers are in the grand entry, but none are permitted to go into the circle until after the eagle staff bearers and flag bearers who lead the dancers, have gone into the ring.

Like the sun, the dancers follow a clockwise pattern.

The oldest of the Indian symbols is the Eagle Staff.  On the account of their warrior status, Dog Soldiers were given the honour of carrying the staffs.

Eagle staff's traditionally are carried into the dancing circle by a native war veteran who has earned the respect of a member of the Pow Wow committee or an eagle staff owner.

In the center of the circle are drummers who offer a special song from the grand entry procession.  The dancers dance with pride and dignity as the songs are drummed.

Flags are raised after the dancers have entered the circle, then flag song(s) are played.  The flag songs are the national Anthems to natives.

A prayer is given by an honourable elder, the Pow Wow dancing and singing commence.

When an Eagle Feather Has Been Dropped

There is always a chance that an eagle feather may fall off a dancers outfit during a Pow Wow.

If a feather has fallen it is reported to a Pow Wow official who protects the feather by standing over it to protect it from passing crowds.

Right away a lost feather dance is set up and four veterans take part in a dance to retreive the eagle feather and give it to the rightful owner.

No cameras, video tapes or photographs are permitted during this dance as a request by the master of ceremonies.

The eagle feather is traditionally retreived by a warrior who had been wounded in combat.  The Warrior fallen spirit is represented by the fallen Eagle feather.

The first two verses of the song are drummed with no down beats, which pays respect to the creator and the spirit of the warriors fallen spirit.

The next four verses are sung with down beats, which represent the canon and gun fire of the enemy.  Each Veteran charges and touches the feather with their right hand, letting out a war whoop to show that the spirit of the feather has been captured.

Anything that is holy is traditionally touched by the left hand.

Then the veteran faces east to acknowledge the spirit world.  Then the feather is returned to its owner.  Traditionally, whatever payment can be afforded, it is given to the veteran.

The Song

The Honour Song

During the Pow Wow, many honour dances will occur.  The dances are in honour of someone's special occasion such as birthdays, lengthy anniversary, the loss of a loved one and other honourable occasions.

Usually a drum is requested by the family to sing a honour song.  The family then would dance around once before the rest of the family members and friends join in the dance.

While this is going one, out of respect everyone would rise and remove their head gear unless they have an eagle feather.

Flag Song

Pow Wows traditionally start with a flag song which is said to be the Native National Anthem.  It is sung in the native tongue.  People are asked to rise and remove their head gear also, unless they have an eagle feather.



The first of the traditional dances is always male dancers.  The northern dancers represent warriors scouting before or while they are on the hunt.


The grass dancer moves his head up and down to the beat of the drum.  The grass dance requires one move to one side, and then the same step is repeated on the opposite side.


The men's fancy war dance originated in Oklahoma.  These dancers are noted for their fast foot work, athletic ability and originality.

Woman's Traditional

Women traditional dancers usually dance in the outer edge of the dance circle bending their knees and staying in one spot.


The jingle dress was made by the Chippewa and Ojibwa nations.

Woman's Fancy

The dance is similar to the men's fancy but only recently has the women's dance moved towards more movement, especially spinning footwork is the main element that makes for a good fancy shawl dancer.

The Drum

In the History of North American Indians, they had many musical instruments.  During a Pow Wow no instrument has as much significance as the drum.

Drums could be made simple from a board that could be beat with a stick or well decorated ceremonial drums which were made from hide leather and wood.

Setting a drum beside a fire allows the leather and the drum to be set to a desired pitch.

The drum is sacred to natives and should be honoured as a honourary person would be.

The drum is the heartbeat of the Anishnabek Nations.


A printable pdf copy of this article is available. Click here to open.

Click "Etiquette of the Pow Wow" to find out how to enjoy visiting a Pow Wow.

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