AUTHOR: Jeremy L. Smith, Student at Utah State University

GRADE LEVEL: 2nd-3rd (can be varied)


All people have events, times, or ways of meeting together to renew old friendships and establish new ones. For Native Americans, this event is called a Powwow. The term Powwow originally comes from the Algonquin language, however the Crow tribe calls it Um-basax-bilua (where they make the noise). It is a time to join in singing, dancing, visiting, and the sharing of talents and crafts. Yet, Native Americans also see it as a time to remember and preserve the rich heritage of traditions and beliefs that, only decades ago, were at risk of being lost forever. Some Powwows are large, week-long events that bring thousands of people from tribes together. Others are smaller, attracting only members of a particular community or tribe for one day.

Powwows are special occasions for many Native American families. They started long ago as the Indian people began to feel their culture slipping away. In the late 1800's and early 1900's Indians were not allowed to have dances. Some people in the government thought the dances were organized to resist federal forces. These people did not realize that the dances were held only to thank their Creator for the earth and the gifts they had received, or to ask for special favors. In the 1960's, officials realized that these dances and traditions were not dangerous, only important to Native Americans. Because they can now hold these Powwows, Native Americans today are developing deep pride in their culture and traditions.

Some Native American families go "on the circuit" to many large Powwows which are held at different places every weekend from June until September. They travel to share native foods, beadwork, pottery, and other crafts. There are often rodeos and horse races. Many come to participate in competitive dancing and singing. Sometimes these dancers compete for thousands of dollars in prizes, but because they must travel long distances they usually do not get rich.

Songs are an important part of the Powwow. They are usually traditional songs that have been passed down in the native tongue for generations. However, sometimes they are sung in English or using "vocables" or sounds that replace words. They are created and performed for different events or ceremonies. The Powwow singers are very important because without them, there would be no dancing. All songs hold special meaning, they remind the people of their old ways.

Dancers have always been an important part of Native American culture. Powwows begin with a parade of dancers in a ceremony called "The Grand Entry." Dancers use bright feathers, beadwork, and handsewn cloth patterns to make buckskin "dance outfits" (people often call them "costumes" but some feel that this makes it sound like Halloween). They paint their faces and bodies, and spend hours getting ready to dance. There are many different dance categories: men's traditional dance, men's grass dance, men's and women's fancy dance, jingle dance, and other dances for children of all ages. They dance to singing and the continuous beat of drums.

The circle is an important symbol to Native American people. It is used in many ways during a Powwow. Dancers are in the center, while everyone else forms a circle around them. Powwow guests must remember not to walk across the dance area, or "cross the circle." Participants can only walk or dance in a clockwise circle around the host drum. The group of singers who perform are called a "drum." They each take a long drumstick and keep a steady rhythm with double drumbeats. These beats represent Mother Earth -- who all life revolves around. The circular shape of the drum and the direction of the dancers represents unity.

A Powwow definitely brings the circle of people closer to friends, family, and culture. It is a giant family reunion where tribes can get together and celebrate. It is also a time to display culture through products and action.



American Indian Culture Research Center (1996). The Powwow and its meaning. [Online] Available: http://www.daknet.com/~indian/powwow.html

Gowder, Paul (1996). What is a Powwow? [On-line] Available: http://www.scsn.net/users/pgowder/powwow.html

Gowder, Paul (1996). A definition of Powwow. [On-line] Available: http://www.cvtv.net/~llc/powwow.html

Holidays and Customs. Chicago, Illinois: World Book-Childcraft International, Inc. (1976).

Behrens, June (1983). Powwow. Chicago, Illinois: Childrens Press.

Robbins, Mari Lu (1994). Native Americans. Huntington Beach, California: Teacher Created Materials

Powwow Celebration Box, pamphlet : Lakeshore Learning Materials (1993).





Approximately five class periods (one week).





1. K-W-L Method: (KNOW-WANT TO KNOW-LEARNED) To begin the unit, ask students what they know about Powwows. Then find out what they wnat to know. When the mini-unit is near completion, come back to the students and review what they learned. This is a great opportunity for the students to get involved in their own learning. Other activities prepared for the unit can be further extended to meet the learning wants of the students.

2. Think-Pair-Share Method: Have each student think of, and write down some of the times they get together to have fun and celebrate with family, friends, and others (i.e. birthdays, Christmas parties, family reunions). then have the students pair up and share their ideas with another classmate. After this has taken place, invite students to share the ideas with the class. List the students' ideas on the board. Discuss some of the purposes or activities that all festivals and gatherings have in common. Be sure to include fun, feasting, dancing, singing, and storytelling. These events also increase a person's awareness of their family or community's values, beliefs, traditions, and customs. Have students write down at least three things they can remember that these celebrations have in common.

3. Mini-Lecture: Introduce the Powwow as the Native American's way of celebrating much of that discussed during Think-Pair-Share. It is like a giant family reunion for the Native American people. Describe events that take place, the crafts displayed, and touch on ideas the students came up with during K-W-L. Share detailed information about the ideas and purposes of the Powwow's events. Ask Review questions to check for understanding and allow students to ask additional questions. Have students draw a picture of what they remember most about what takes place at a Powwow (i.e. dancing, singing, food, jewelry, rodeo).

4. Exhibit or Demonstration: Announce to students that at the end of the week there will be a culminating event, a classroom Powwow. Each student will be required to contribute an authentic Native American exhibit (story, model, self-made representation of an artifact) or demonstration (poem reading, music, dance) demonstrating their understanding of some aspect of a Powwow. Have students give you their choice at this point so that you can follow up, or you may want to have a set of choices the students can choose from. For example assign out a specific poem, artifact, story, piece of music, or dance.

5. Concept Development: Important concepts for the students to understand at this point are those of tradition (established pattern of thought, behavior, and action; the handing down of information or beliefs) and custom (a repeated, long-established practice of procedure). Discuss the meaning of these definitions. Share examples and non-examples of both definitions that relate to Powwows and then a few from your own family, community, or culture. Ask questions to check for understanding, then have students identify one tradition or custom of special importance to his/her own family.

6. Writing Extension: Have students write a story about the special tradition or custom they selected. Ask them to include their family's reasons for having such an activity. If the student in unsure of the reasons, encourage them to go home and discuss it with their parent(s).

7. Hands-on: This will include several different activities relating to Powwows.

A. Students will make bell straps for use in the classroom Powwow. This can be done using a 1 1/2 inch strip of felt with 1/2 inch slits cut in the center every inch of so. Yarn is then woven in and out of the slits and through a few bells. The yarn can then be pulled tight and tied around a wrist or ankle.

B. Students will learn to play some favorite Native American children's games. These include Stick Guessing and the Stick Passing Game (see appendix for an explanation of rules).

C. Talk about the importance of rhythm in the Powwow dances. Use sticks to keep a beat as you read Native American poems or literature (a good chance to work on music and reading skills as well!).

Discuss the activities of a Powwow so that students will be able to share brief explanations. Ask for explanations as students participate in the activities.

8. POWWOW (culminating event): Use this final day for students to present exhibits and demonstrations. Have Native Americans from the community present stories, crafts, or demonstrations. Take time to play the games the students have learned. Have Indian Fry Bread (see appendix). Sit in circles for the day. Dance. Have fun! Before ending the day discuss how the Powwow helped them feel as a class. Do they feel a greater unity? Go back to the K-W-L chart, what have they learned?





Stick Guessing: Games and recreation are important parts of the Native American culture. Get two bones or sticks that look about the same. One bone or stick needs to be marked on one end with dark ink. The game is carried out by two players. The first player holds the bones behind her back and shuffles them. she then holds the bones in front of her with the ends hidden in her hands. The second players chooses one of the bones. If he chose the bone with the marked end, he now shuffles and holds the bones and the first player guesses. Continue in this way.


Stick Passing Game: Play this rhythmic stick-passing game.

1. Arrange the children in a circle. Give one child a bone, and give each of the other children a stick.

2. Keep a beat with a drum. Players pass the sticks and bone in time with the beat in the following fashion: Tap the stick (or bone) on the ground (first beat), tap it again (second beat), pass it to the player on your right while receiving from the player on the left (third beat), change the new stick (or bone) from the left hand to the right hand (fourth beat).

3. When the music stops, the player holding the bone gives the bone to the player on his right, then leaves the circle, joining the rhythm makers and keeping beat with drums, bells, or hand clapping. The winner of the game is the last child to remain in the circle.

(games found in: Powwow Celebration Box, pamphlet: Lakeshore Learning Materials (1993).)


Indian Fry Bread:



Mix the ingredients (except for cooking oil) together to make a stiff dough. With your hands, roll the dough into a ball about 3" in diameter and pull the ball into a 6" circle. Do not use a rolling pin. With a knife, slash one side in faive places from the center out. Heat 1" of cooking oil in a skillet and drop in the flattened dough. Brown each side and serve with honey, cinnamon and sugar, or powdered sugar.

(Robbins, Mari Lu (1994). Native Americans. Huntington Beach, California: Teacher Created Materials)

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