Powwows are gatherings of different Native American tribes, a time to preserve old ways and celebrate traditions with dancing, singing, eating, socializing, and some friendly competitions.
The first thing we saw was a group of people in the middle of the big room, sitting in a circle with their backs to those who had gathered to watch and/or dance. I thought they might be called drummers, as they certainly drummed together, but they are actually called the singers. Their songs were unfamiliar (and very thrilling) to me; they were apparently religious songs, as well as war and social songs.
The front seats in the arena are for the dancers. Any seat with a blanket on it is reserved, and uncovered seats in rows away from the front are considered unreserved and you may sit there.
Powwow organizers and those who take part depend on donations for travel money and support. Anyone can drop money onto the blanket laid on the ground during blanket dances.
You should remove your hat and stand quietly during the Grand Entry procession and during any special honor songs. Listen to the announcer for direction.
Different groups have different rules about photos. At the Red Paint Powwow we attended, observers were asked not to take photos; at the upcoming Gathering of Nations in Albuquerque, pictures of group dancing are encouraged. Individuals who are waiting to dance should not have their pictures taken; this is a time of preparation and quiet reflection.
I have "a typical Easterner bias," as was pointed out to me by a native Westerner friend, who was taking issue with my amazement at the deep patriotism of a people who had been abused by their government in the past. She pointed out that we are different people from the ones who took part in "all that." It was a surprise to me, to find myself identified as a typical Easterner even though I am proud to identify myself as a New Englander. Well, that's who I am and I can only tell you what I see and how it makes me feel.
For some other accounts of the same Red Paint Powwow, you can read our friend Patrick's blog post, Cultural Crossroad (he is an Easterner, too; a sociologist) and Andi Murphy's Native View on Red Paint (she is a Native American journalist from Crownpoint, New Mexico, on the edge of the Navajo reservation). Andi's post includes photos taken at the powwow; I imagine she had permission to take them because she is a journalist. I am glad that there is a pictorial record outside of the pictures I will carry in my memory.