Here are some basic rules you should observe when you are a guest at a pow wow.
The centerpiece of the powwow grounds is the dance ring – also known as the arena or dance arbor or dance circle. The dance circle is sacred ground, like a church, and should be treated with respect. Don’t let children play in the circle. Don’t take a shortcut across the arena, don’t walk animals near or on the circle, don’t fight or curse within hearing of the dance ring. These are signs of disrespect. In general, if you wouldn’t do it in your own church, don’t do it in or near the dance arena.
Most dance arbors have limited seating provided around the perimeter of the circle. The front row is reserved for elders and dancers, so don’t sit there. Also, if there is a shawl or blanket on a seat, someone is reserving it, so don’t sit there. Don’t sit in lawn chairs that aren’t yours. Because seating is usually limited, it is customary to bring a lawn chair to the pow wow if you wish to be sure of a place to sit.
The arena director or MC will explain what is going on. He will tell you when it’s ok to take pictures, and when it’s not okay. Please honor his instructions. Some ceremonies and dances are so sacred, they should not be photographed. Generally, you can take pictures of group dancing in the arena at most pow wows for your personal use, unless the arena director tells you not to take pictures of a particular dance or ceremony.
However, if you attend a pow wow at a Pueblo in New Mexico or sponsored by the Hopi tribe, pay special attention to their policies regarding cameras and video equipment. These cultures are especially sensitive to unauthorized photography, and will definitely enforce their rules.
Most of the Pueblos do not allow photography of any kind, or you need a special permit which has a hefty fee and you must first explain what you will do with the photos. You can get your camera confiscated, escorted off their property, or even arrested, so follow the rules carefully.
Outside of the dance arena, always ask dancers first if you can take their picture. Most dancers will allow photographs, but if they decline, be polite and simply go ask someone else.
Do Not refer to a dancer’s outfit as a costume. These are not costumes. A costume is what you wear for Halloween or play acting. To equate a dancer’s regalia with a costume is insulting. Many dancers will be very annoyed by this. You may call it regalia or simply refer to it as his or her outfit.
Never touch a dancer’s outfit or any part of his/her regalia, including feathers. These items are likely family heirlooms passed down through generations, or they were made especially for the dancer, involving hundreds of hours of labor, and have deep spiritual meaning to the dancer.
They are delicate and hard to clean. Regalia is easily soiled by the oils on your hands, especially on leather and feathers. Be respectful and keep your hands to yourself. A nice gesture, which is appreciated by many dancers, is to offer to send them a copy of your photos of them.
It is a sign of respect for male spectators to remove their hats while watching the dancing. You should stand for all Grand Entries, Flag and Veteran songs, and other times as directed by the Arena Director, except if you have a physical problem that makes this hard for you, then you can stay seated.
The Grand Entry, Flag, and Veteran’s songs are among the most sacred, so just like the singing of your national anthem, you shouldn’t be talking or fidgeting while they are sung.
Some pow wows don’t allow pets, so if you plan to bring yours, check on this before traveling long distances. If you do bring a pet, it should be on a leash at all times, and kept away from the dance arena and out of vendor booths and food areas. You should bring sealable plastic bags to pick up after your pet’s bathroom needs.
Tipis and brush arbors in the encampment are private property, just like your RV or tent, and should be respected as such. Do not enter other people’s tipis or camp space unless you are invited.