By Brad Reynolds
For all I’ve seen in the Treasure State, I’m always amazed by how much is left to be discovered. There’s always something fresh to experience—always some new way to revel in Montana’s landscapes, history, and culture.
This year, I decided that for me that “new way” would be attending a powwow.
One problem: I hadn’t a clue what powwow etiquette
Thankfully, I met some people who do. From their experiences, I’ve compiled this: a basic guide to Montana powwows—some things you can expect to see, tips for being respectful, and how to enjoy yourself at one of the Treasure State’s oldest and most beloved traditions.
Section 1: All are Welcome
As you’ve probably surmised (if not from the title, then from my incredibly generic name in the byline), I am a white guy, and as a white guy, I worried that my presence at a powwow might seem intrusive.
I was wrong.
“I think what a lot of people will find is that Native Americans are very welcoming and generous,” says Dustin Whitford, a Chippewa Cree dancer.
Whitford has danced powwows since he was old enough to walk, and his family has attended the Rocky Boy Powwow for generations. Year after year, they put on a free feed at their campsite and invite visitors to join them.
Doug Worrell, a non-Native professional photographer says he’s regularly experienced generosity such as this.
“One of the tenants of any powwow is giving to others,” he explains. “That’s powwow culture.”
Likewise, Chris Roberts, a non-Native photographer who has danced at powwows for over fifty years and authored two books on the subject (Powwow Country and People of the Circle), has found joy in the inclusivity of these celebrations.
“It’s a culture that incorporates everyone,” he says, adding that in his experience, Native Americans have been eager to share their culture with visitors. “They want people to know and respect indigenous cultures.”
Section 2: Be Respectful
When you’re attending a powwow (or any event, for that matter), a little common sense goes a long way. Don’t get in the dancers’ way, remove your hat during the color guard presentation, and get permission before taking someone’s photo.
“Some people don’t want their pictures taken and there are some ceremonies that aren’t to be photographed,” explains Worrell. “You have to know when to put down the camera.”
But how do you know if you’re a newcomer?
“Listen to the announcers and pay attention, and pick up a program if one is available. You can learn a lot in a short amount of time,” says Roberts.
Programs and announcements can provide information on powwow dances, traditions, and decorum, such as standing in reverence when an eagle feather falls and never referring to a dancer’s regalia as a “costume.”
“We don’t want our regalia compared to something you find in a Halloween store,” Whitford explains. “It can take years, thousands of dollars, prayers, and ceremonies to create these. They’re artwork.”
Respecting customs is important, and what you don’t find in a program, you can probably learn from the people.
“Ask questions,” says Worrell. “They’ll tell you what’s going on and why.”
Whitford adds, “Don’t be afraid to interact and approach people.”
Section 3: Be Present
Visitors—Native or non-Native, returning or new—have many opportunities to participate in a powwow. They can camp side by side with locals. They might be invited to a meal or receive a gift at a giveaway (a special event in which blankets and other goods are distributed in honor of a person or occasion). They can even join in particular dances if they so choose.
“There are intertribal and social dances where the announcer will say get out here and dance with us,” explains Roberts. “A lot of people dance in their street clothes. Their participation makes a difference.”
If you feel moved to dance, then do so when you’re invited; however, Roberts advises that you start with a basic step and keep it simple. And if you choose not to dance, that’s okay too.
“There’s a common saying,” Roberts goes on. “It takes three elements to have a powwow: drummers, dancers, and spectators.”
You might be more inclined to participate as a viewer, taking in the incredible sights, sounds, and story of the dance.
“There’s real excitement in that,” says Worrell.
Every tribe may have different traditions and beliefs associated with powwows, but all are rooted in the power of dance and the importance of gathering together in fellowship. Across Montana, tribes are pleased to see this fellowship expand.
“For us, we’re taught that visitors are sacred, bringing good energy,” says Whitford. “Hopefully in return, we’re sending them back with good feelings as well.”