USA Radio
Bismarck, North Dakota

The United Tribes International Powwow

Celebrate Native American culture at one spectacular gathering

The term ‘powwow’ originated in the Narragansett Algonquin language and meant a healing ceremony attended by medicine men. It was first spread across the continent by white Americans, who thought it meant any large gathering or council, and was later adopted by the country’s diverse Native tribes. The first modern powwows, at which Native Americans came together to celebrate their heritage in music, dance, prayer and celebration, were organised in the 1920s, but the movement didn’t gain full momentum until the Native American cultural renaissance of the late 1960s and early ’70s. Today, more than 300 powwows are held annually, nationwide.

In North Dakota, which is home to more than a dozen powwows each summer, the United Tribes International Powwow is the heavyweight champ. Held annually since 1969, it typically attracts 1,000 dancers and drum groups from many tribes, as well as performers demonstrating the indigenous music and dance of other cultures—such as Andean, Hawaiian, Aztec and Atka Alaskan—for more than 15,000 visitors.

Native Americans of all ages compete in 22 dance categories, including Traditional, Buckskin, Straight Dance and Chicken Dance.

The competitors’ regalia, made from both traditional and modern materials, attracts as much attention as their moves, and is tailored to each dance. For example, participants in grass dances wear yards of trailing ribbon or yarn, symbolising prairie grass, and the clothing of jingle dancers is covered with small metal cones that make music as they move. Traditional dancers incorporate feathers and beadwork into their costumes, with their dances mimicking the movements of animals or acting out the hunt. Fancy dress features neon-coloured feathers, beads and other elements that accentuate this energetic dance, which has its origins in the preparation for battle. No celebration is complete without food, and powwows are no different: elk burgers, Indian tacos and fry bread always make an appearance. Vendors representing dozens of cultures from across the country offer their arts and crafts for sale, and don’t miss the crowning of Miss Indian Nations.

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Trip idea text ©Patricia Schultz. For contact information about the places mentioned and many more USA trip ideas, see Patricia Schultz's blockbuster book.

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