The Spirit of Native America

Belief in spirit was a very strong part of all indigenous peoples of the world. In Native Americans' lives, this meant believing that everything, living or non-living, had a spirit.

Another part of Native American spirituality was the belief that all parts of the world: the sky, the grass, the rocks, the animals, the wind, the water, and the people were all related. Worshipping, singing, dancing, creating art, and helping others were ways to respect the world and please the spirits.

"The old Indian teaching was that it is wrong to tear loose from its place on the earth anything that may be growing there. It may be cut off, but it should not be uprooted. The trees and grass have spirits. Whatever one of such growths may be destroyed by some good Indian, his act is done in sadness and with a prayer for forgiveness because of his necessities.'' 

Wooden Leg
(late 19th century, Cheyenne Indian)

Many native groups also believed that humans brought spirit power to their lives through art, music, dance, ceremonies, and celebrations. Native Americans danced to please spirits, to bring rain, to welcome visitors, to bring blessings, to share stories, to welcome a boy or girl to adulthood, for food and animals, and for many other reasons. All Native American groups had their own special ceremonies, dances, and celebrations. Powwows were special dances to bring spirit power to the people. 

Most Native American groups also had a special medicine man, wise man, or shaman. This was a person with special powers and knowledge of the spirits. This person kept good relations with nature and the spirits and helped heal the sick and wounded using natural resources, ceremonies, and prayers.


A powwow is an American Indian gathering focussing on dance, song and celebration. There are several different stories of how the powwow was started. 

Some people think that the war dance groups of the Southern Plains tribes started the powwow. Another belief is that when the Native Americans were forced onto reservations the government made them have dances for "non-Indians" to come and see.

No matter how powwows started, they are still important to Native Americans today. Although some dance styles, music, and costumes have changed over time, the tradition of song, music, and dancing helps Native Americans keep their culture alive.

The drum is a very important part of the powwow. It is believed to carry the heartbeat of Mother Earth, and to call the spirits and nations together. Different songs and beats are used for different parts of a powwow.

The two most common types of powwows held today are traditional and competition powwows, in which prize money can be won for dancing and drumming. There are special rules and etiquette for powwow dancers, singers, drummers, and audience. Modern powwows are usually three day weekend events held in the summer. All people, including non-Indian people, are welcome to attend. 

Powwow Rules and Etiquette

Etiquette for Visitors and Newcomers

- Bring your own seating.
- Do not sit on the benches around the arena.
- Ask permission before taking pictures of dancers.
- Donate money to the drum.
- Always stand during special songs.
- Always listen to the Master of Ceremonies.

- Have fun, ask questions, and meet people!


Etiquette for Dancers

- Be on time.
- Never go to a powwow intoxicated or bring alcohol! 
- Give respect to the head man and lady.

To honor a person, place a gift at their feet while they are dancing. If you are honored in this way, dance in place by your gift until someone picks it up off of the ground and gives it to you. Never pick it up yourself.

- Place your blanket on the bench where you want to sit.
- Dance as many dances as you can.

If you drop something while dancing, don't pick it up! Dance in place beside it until someone picks it up for you. Anything dropped belongs to the person in charge. You may be asked to give something in return when the item is given back to you. 
When an eagle feather is dropped, the powwow stops and a ceremony is performed to pick it up.
In a Two Step or a Hat or Shawl dance, it is ladies' choice. If you don't dance with the first person who asks you, you must give her at least five or ten dollars.

Etiquette for the Drum and Singers

- Always ask the head singer before sitting at the drum.
- Ladies are not allowed to sit in the first row.
- Know the songs you are to sing. 
- Never sing too loud or over beat the drum. 
- Everything goes around the drum in one direction. Don't pass things over the drum.
- Always sing your best.
- Enjoy yourself!


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