The pow wow is a celebration of Native American culture and traditions. It is a gathering in which Native American people come together to dance, sing and drum. But above all, it is an opportunity to socialize and strengthen the bonds between Native people.
A pow wow event is normally set up as two large circles. The center circle is the dance arena, outside of which is a circle holding the master or ceremonies’ table, drum groups, and sitting areas for dancers and their families. Beyond these two circles will be a spectator area, and beyond that are several rings of vendor booths, selling supplies, food or arts and crafts. Pow wows are often divided into multiple sessions, each with a Grand Entry.
Each pow wow session begins with a Grand Entry. Dancers enter the arena, organized by dance style and age, while the Host Drum sings. Normally, the first to enter are veterans carrying flags and eagle staffs, followed by the head dancers, then other dancers follow in order: Men's Traditional, Men's Grass Dance, Men's Fancy, Women's Traditional, Women's Jingle and Women's Fancy. Teens and small children will enter in the same order. After the Grand Entry, the MC will invite a respected member of the community to give an invocation. The Host Drum that did not sing the Grand Entry song will then sing a Flag Song, followed by a Victory or Veterans' Song, and the flags and staffs are posted at the MC's table.
As the voice of the pow wow, the MC keeps the singers, dancers and spectators informed about what’s happening. The MC sets the schedule of events, maintains the drum rotation (when each drum group gets to sing) and will entertain the audience with a joke or two. The MC also may run raffles or other contests during the pow wow.
Many of the pow wow dances have descended from the dances of the Plains tribes of Canada and the United States. Apart from each session’s opening and closing dances, the intertribal dance is the most common. During this dance, a drum will sing and everyone is welcome to come and dance. Similar open dances are the trot dance—called a crow hop when performed by a Northern Drum or a horse-stealing song by a Southern Drum and the round dance or side step. Each of these songs require a different dance step, but are open to dancers of any style. Normally, intertribal dancing is an individual activity, but there are also couples and group dances, such as the two step—couples follow the lead of the head dancers, forming a line behind them.
In addition to these open dances, pow wows hold dance competitions for particular styles and age groups. Top dancers receive a sometimes substantial cash prize, but to compete, the dancer must be dressed in Regalia appropriate for the competition.
The pow wow host drum provides music for the dancers. At an intertribal pow wow, two or more drums often are hired to be the host drums—a Host Northern Drum and a Host Southern Drum. Each drum has a Lead Singer who runs his drum, sings and leads his singers. Host drums are responsible for performing at the beginning and end of a pow wow session. They generally begin the pow wow with an opening song, the grand entry song, a flag song, and a Veterans' or Victory Song, then end the pow wow with a flag song, retreat song, and closing song. If the pow wow has gourd dancing, the Host Southern Drum will often sing all of the gourd songs, though another drum may perform them. Drum and singing competitions are held as well, with winners receiving cash prizes.