MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Powwow primer

Yes, you're invited. Here's what to expect and why you should go.

Girls dance at the Upper Sioux wacipi.

© Beth Gauper

Girls dance in the circle at the Upper Sioux Wacipi near Granite Falls, Minn.

Until the first Bemijigamaag Powwow, many community leaders in the northern Minnesota town of Bemidji had never been to a powwow.

"They said, 'Oh, that's a Native American thing, that's their thing,'' said organizer Darrell Kingbird. "They said, 'I never knew I could come to one.' ''

But the powwow's tradition of welcoming outsiders is an old one. It's a family reunion, and the one concept central to the Ojibwe and Dakota world view is this: We are all related.

So the three largest Ojibwe bands in northern Minnesota invited the locals as well as Gov. Mark Dayton, and they came. The next year, the bands invited the entire Minnesota Legislature to their April powwow.

"We opened a lot of doors and healed a lot of stereotypes,'' Kingbird said.

Meeting the neighbors

For indigenous people, a powwow — or wacipi, as the Dakota often call them — is a social gathering, a time to greet old friends, replenish a sense of cultural identity and show off achievements.

For non-Indians, it's a window into a culture rich with nature-based spirituality and symbolic meaning.

Why should you go, if you're not an Indian? Because they're neighbors.

When Europeans arrived in the New World, it was not an untouched wilderness. For the Dakota and Ojibwe, this already was the land of the free.

Their culture has much to offer. And luckily, they're happy to share.

Learning to listen

But it's not always easy for non-Indians to absorb.

A powwow can be a little like a Magic Eye puzzle: There's a swirl of colors and a lot to look at, but it's hard for the eye to grasp the whole picture. That is, if the eye belongs to a person whose knowledge of Indians comes mainly from history books.

A tourist dances at a Pipestone powwow.

© Beth Gauper

At many powwows, especially smaller and traditional ones, tourists are invited into the circle.

"It's such a different culture,'' says public-television producer Barbara Wiener, who spent a year researching her documentary "Wacipi-PowWow.'' "It's so shocking — you feel like you've stepped into a different country.''

At all powwows, the dancing celebrates each man and woman's artistry, spirituality and connection to ancestors, community and family.

"You're not just dancing for yourself, you're dancing for the stars, the moon, the plants, the animal people and for the ones who can't walk,'' says Darrell Kingbird.

Some powwows are competitions, with cash prizes awarded to the best dancers and sometimes drummers. Others are traditional, more like a family reunion.

A powwow in Mankato

The Mdewakanton Mah-kato Wacipi in Mankato, held every September, is a traditional powwow, one of the most meaningful in the Midwest.

It honors the 38 Dakota warriors hanged nearby in 1862, still the largest mass execution in the United States. Even today, emotions remain raw.

As the afternoon sun beat down on Land of Memories Park, the drumming began.

Into a circle ringed by bleachers came dancers carrying sacred eagle staffs. Other dancers carried flags, one honoring the military veterans who are venerated in Indian culture.

One of the first things visitors will notice is the many ways in which veterans are honored. Despite their history with the U.S. government, Indians take great pride in serving their country, and their young people have a long record of valiant service.

The second thing they'll notice is how revered elders are, and how treasured are the children, who are full participants in the day.

After the honor dancers come the men's traditional dancers, wearing turkey-feather bustles and perhaps a bone breastplate, using a controlled, heel-to-toe step.

Then came the fancy dancers, in a whirl of color and spinning leaps; the grass dancers, with streamers swaying; and the young women in jingle dresses.

It was the second year I'd attended. Even so, as I watched the proceedings and listened hard to the voices crackling over the PA, I could hear Sherlock Holmes' admonishment to the dim-witted Watson echoing in my ears: "You see, but you do not observe.''

In time, says Barbara Wiener, the many facets of Indian culture reveal themselves to those who relax their reliance on Western thinking.

"The more powwows you go to, the more you know and the more respectful you are in terms of listening, and if you listen you will get it,'' she says. "Now, I can't imagine a summer without going to several.''

Drum circle at a Pipestone powwow.

© Beth Gauper

The drum circle provides the heartbeat for every powwow.

Powwow etiquette

Like most festivals, powwows include food and craft booths and, sometimes, children's games and learning tents.

The centerpiece is the Grand Entry; most are 1 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays and 7 p.m. Saturdays. Guests should stand during the Grand Entry and honor songs. Listen to the announcer, who will give instructions.

Don't enter the dance circle unless invited. When you are invited, don't feel you have to dance a certain way or wear anything special; your hosts will not judge you.

Refer to regalia or outfits, not “costumes.”

Don’t take photos of the dancing when the announcer forbids it, and don't  take photos of individuals without asking permission.

Do ask questions. Traditionally, friends and guests brought tobacco to honor favorite dancers and ask advice from elders, and some may still appreciate this.

Where to find a powwow

Check with each nation to find out details. Often, the most specific information will be on Facebook pages.

Below is a guide to some of the larger powwows. Since many of the participants travel from a long distance, holiday weekends are a favorite time.

To find other powwows around the United States and Canada, check Powwows or Drumhop.

For more about the Upper Sioux Community wacipi (pronounced wah-CHEE-pee) in Minnesota, see Dancing on the Yellow Medicine.

For more places to learn about the culture, see Heritage travel: Dakota and Ojibwe.

For more about the history of the local indigenous people, see Ojibwe or Chippewa, Dakota or Sioux?


In the northern Minnesota town of Bemidji, the Leech Lake, White Earth and Red Lake Ojibwe nations host the Bemijigamaag Stanford Powwow at the Stanford Center arena.

Dancers at Upper Sioux.

© Beth Gauper

The "grandmas'' have a special place in the family and at powwows.

Memorial Day weekend

Ho-Chunk Nation Memorial Day competition powwow in Black River Falls, two miles east of Majestic Pines casino on Wisconsin 54. Black River Country tourism.

Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe traditional powwow in Cass Lake, Minn., at the Palace Casino powwow grounds. Cass Lake tourism.

Memorial Day Powwow at Mille Lacs Indian Museum near Onamia, Minn.

Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe School Contest Powwow near Hayward, Wis. Hayward Lakes tourism.

Red Lake Band of Chippewa powwow at Seven Clans Casino in Thief River Falls, Minn.

Red Lake Band of Chippwa Indians powwow on Lower Red Lake in northwest Minnesota.


Red Lake Band of Chippewa powwow at Seven Clans Casino in Warroad, Minn.

White Earth Reservation traditional powwow in White Earth, Minn.

A dancer at a powwow.

© Beth Gauper

Many male dancers wear turkey-feather bustles.

Lower Sioux Community Wacipi in Morton, Minn., near Redwood Falls, traditional.

Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Grand Celebration powwow at Grand Casino in Hinckley, Minn.

Bois Forte Band of Chippewa Lake Vermillion traditional powwow on Lake Vermillion near Ely, Minn.

St. Croix Chippewa competition powwow in Turtle Lake, Wis.

Oneida Nation Powwow in Oneida, Wis., near Green Bay, competition.

Fourth of July weekend

Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa traditional powwow near Bayfield, Wis.

Leech Lake Band of Chippewa traditional powwow in Cass Lake, Minn.

Oneida Nation competition powwow in Oneida, Wis., just west of Green Bay.

Little River Band of Ottawa Indians contest powwow in Manistee, Mich.


Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians Powwow and Summer Gathering in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.

Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Bear River traditional powwow in Lac du Flambeau, Wis.

Prairie Island Indian Community Wacipi near Red Wing, Minn.

Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Veterans Powwow, Cloquet, Minn.

Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Ojibwe Honor the Earth Powwow near Hayward, Wis.

Pipestone Dakota Traditional Wacipi in Pipestone, Minn.


Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin contest powwow in Keshena, Wis., northwest of Green Bay.

Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa traditional powwow in Grand Portage, Minn. With the rendezvous at adjoining Grand Portage National Monument, this is a large event; plan a year in advance.

Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Traditional Powwow at the powwow grounds, near Onamia, Minn.

Dancers at Lac du Flambeau.

© Beth Gauper

At the weekly powwow in Lac du Flambeau, Wis., visitors join the dancers.

Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians Homecoming Powwow in Harbor Springs, Mich.

Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community Wacipi in Prior Lake, Minn.

Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians Peshawbestown Traditional Pow Wow between Northport and Suttons Bay on Michigan's Leelanau Peninsula.

Bad River Band of Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians traditional powwow in Odanah near Ashland, Wis.

St. Croix Chippewa Wild Rice Fest traditional powwow in Danbury, Wis.

Labor Day weekend

Leech Lake Band of Chippewa traditional powwow in Cass Lake, Minn. Cass Lake tourism.

Ho-Chunk Nation Labor Day Day competition powwow in Black River Falls, two miles east of Majestic Pines casino on Wisconsin 54. Black River Country tourism.


Indian Summer Festival in Milwaukee at Maier Festival Park.

Great Dakota Gathering & Homecoming traditional powwow in Winona, Minn.

Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Welcome Home traditional powwow in Mendota, Minn., on the Minnesota River between Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Mahkato traditional wacipi, Mankato, Minn., in Land of Memories Park.

Harvest Pow Wow in Naperville, Ill., sponsored by the Midwest SOARRING Foundation.

Last updated on May 11, 2016

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