Planning A Native American Gathering

© 2011 & 2023 Native American Composition & Performance, Limited

By Jamie K. Oxendine, Lumbee/Creek

Native American Speaker

Director,Black Swamp InterTribal Foundation

Prelude and Disclaimer has received many requests from committees and individuals about the planning of a Native American Powwow.  This article is for informational purposes on the logistics and planning of an event.  It is not a “powwow police” document.  Any and all committees planning a Native American Event need to be aware of the consequences that may appear from the so called “powwow police.”  Always seek out suitable advice and wisdom from your Nation or Tribe as well as Native American Elders, Veterans, Teachers and others that are very knowledgeable on the discipline.

This is far from definitive but it is a beneficial place to commence.


Is it competition?  Is it traditional? Is it intertribal? Is it outside or inside? Will participants need to show Tribal Identification?  Is it Closed Drum or Open Drum?  What is Admission? Who is the Head Staff?   How many vendors? How is this going to be paid for?

That was just a simple 10 questions (there are easily 1001 more).  Overwhelmed yet?  Well it can be but if one puts the much needed time and effort into the planning and logistics of the event it can be a very fun and very prosperous happening.

Regardless of what any event may be it must be well organized and well planned.   Even our ancestors knew this.  When they had any type of gathering they knew that certain people had certain tasks from those that prepared the food to those that prepared the location and beyond.  This was true of both Sacred and Ceremonial events to Secular gatherings that were open to other Nations and even open to non-Native friends or neighbors.  Even George Washington wrote about a time as a little boy when he and his Father were invited to “…a dance of the local Indian savages….” The fact that the Washington’s received the invitation days before the event was a distinct indication that the Native Nation of which Washington speaks had planning and organization as a fundamental responsibility.

As you plan think of the obvious Who, What, Where, When, How and Why.      

Why IS the main reason for organizing the event?

The main reason and most important reason(s) should be to honor, promote and respect the Native American Culture.  Secondary reasons can be many and greatly varied from raising money for a very good cause to just educating the general public on Native American Culture to providing a setting of the Native American Culture to Natives in an area where there are no powwows to celebrate the culture.

Whether it be a high impact competition powwow or a traditional gathering of people, what the event is and the purpose of the event needs to be clear to both the Native Community and the non-Native Community.  This may seem to be common sense, but one would be very surprised that many event committees forget about this very important mission.  Solve this issue by having a Mission Statement.


That is not a rhetorical or stupid question.  Is it competition or traditional?  What is the name of the event?   Are you calling it a powwow, gathering, happening, doing, festival, feast, celebration, or something else?  

The name is important but it can be finalized over time.  Spending too much time on the name and not on other factors is a step in the wrong direction.

There will be many more whats but for now concentrate on the contest vs. traditional question.  A contest powwow will more likely draw the largest crowds of both Natives and non-Natives.  It also creates a rather spectacular show and gala as the art of the challenge brings excitement, fun and even some amusement.  The contest however requires twice as much planning and logistics with the main trial being that of prizes and prize money.

How much contest?  This is exceedingly difficult as it requires much attention to detail.  One must consider the following: Will there be competition in every category?  Will there be Drum competition? Is there a special contest?  Who will be the Head Judge and who are the other judges?  What are the place levels and how many place levels will there be?  What are the contest rules?  How will payment be made?  Are there payment restrictions per local, state or federal laws?  What is registration and is there a fee?  How much paperwork is needed in obtaining information from those competing?

As one can see a contest powwow is an enormous undertaking.  The author has only given some concerns above.  There are many more to consider.    

The principal complaints about contest powwows from both Natives and non-Natives is that the powwow can actually get bogged down taking too much time and there is less actual culture seen as there is too much testosterone and too much estrogen in the “friendly” opposition.

On the other hand the key complaints about traditional powwows from Natives and non-Natives is that the powwow is too predictable and boring as there is no excitement.

Of course if one is reading this and is planning an event it would be common to think that the event being planned is secular and open to the public and “intertribal.”  Once your event is advertised/marketed either the old fashion way by paper flyers or the 21st Century way of hi-tech communications, it can easily be interpreted as a public event.  This is especially true if you unmistakably designate on flyers and other informational tools that the public is welcome and all are invited. Remember: if the event is to be Sacred or Ceremonial or Private do not advertise or market the occasion to the general public.  The same holds true if the event is for only one tribe and thus it is not intertribal.

When & Where is the powwow? 

Make these decisions early and start the promotion right away.  In this day and age use of technology is a must.  The perfect place to start for your many resources is  There one can find many points to help with marketing, advertising, promotion, articles of pertinent information, lists of Head Staff, vendors, powwow history and etiquette, contests results for evaluation, and so much more.

Plan well ahead.  Too many events over the past decade have been planned in less than 6 months only to have a very unsuccessful event.  The best of committees plan as early as a good year in advance.  The concepts of When and Where work hand in hand and must be done together.   Having a venue but no free dates is no better than having dates and no venue.

Outside or Inside?  An outside event is wonderful but only as long as the weather is good.  One cannot control the weather so be prepared for just about anything.  It is logical to assume that an outdoor event requires much more planning and logistics than an inside event. Nevertheless, the good thing is your venue will mostly decide your layout of the Dance Circle, Arbor, Vendors and more by one simple factor: amount of space.  Cases in point: A Drum Arbor inside might not be possible.  A limited space outside may also hinder the size and place of the Drum Arbor.    

Questions on insurance and liability will mainly be concerned with your venue and that comes from whether your event is inside or outside.  Sometimes the venue will cover the powwow event and committee, but many times the venue requires that the powwow committee also put up good faith for any possible liabilities and have their own insurance.


Start with a committee that can be trusted and then delegate responsibilities to either groups or individuals.  Break the powwow committee into smaller groups and assign the various tasks in the list below at the end of this article.

Then the very first thing to take care of is have each sub-committee or individual research the costs of each item that is applicable that is listed at the end of this article and report to the main committee.  This will give you the most important thing of all:  BUDGET.  Every powwow needs a budget and doing anything without one can be very risky.

Begin as early as possible seeking help with your budget by soliciting funds.  This can be via donations, grants, fund raising, and more.  Do not forget about small and large businesses and corporations as many have policies and procedures for contributing to the community.  

One cannot stress enough that if you do not have the budget or cannot get the budget for an event then one need not even plan an event.  This is so important to avoid some serious issues and stress involving money and bills.  So many powwow committees and individuals have found themselves in the red category of debt because of the lack of a budget.   Never wait till the last minute to obtain funds to support the event.  If your budget is nowhere near being finalized by some 4-6 months before the event it may not be wise to continue.  The last thing any committee needs to do is beg for money just weeks before the occasion.  This looks very bad to both the Native Community and the non-Native Community.  It shows a lack of care and concern for the Native American Culture.

As said, certainly there will be 1001 questions and the importance of each depends on the goal of the committee. Take Food as an illustration.  Having Food Vendors is a must to provide refreshment for both participants and spectators.  With that as a given though one must decide on whether they are going to feed said participants and spectators.  It has been a tradition that food is part of any Native American event as known from our own oral history and the writings of both Europeans and Americans.  The decision of your powwow committee is who you are going to feed.  There are some events that practically feed everybody.  It is very traditional that at least one meal during an event be provided by the powwow committee to the powwow participants (mainly Drums, Dancers and Vendors).  For most this has been the Saturday evening meal.

Some questions here: Is the committee providing the meal?  Is the meal being catered by outside vendors or a food vendor at the powwow?  What are the Health Department concerns with providing a meal for a large number of people?  Must participants register to receive the meal? What will the meal be? 

When it comes to food, expense is the main factor.  But there is good news and that comes from the fact that many food businesses love to donate to a needed charity or community event.  Even some well known caterers have donated entire meals for community events including powwows.  Therefore do some research and start looking for the meal solution as quickly as possible.

Two Worlds & The Law

Practically any event since the mid-20th Century involves both the Native Community and the non-Native Community.  Actually if one really researches the history they might be shocked to know that the camaraderie connection of both the Native and non-Native Community with regards to powwows can be found to exist as early as the 19th Century.

Ellis (2005) speaks of powwows as early as the late 19th Century in which to attract dollars for the Tribe putting on a “dance” the Tribe hired a person to market the “dance” to the white tourists in the area.

Contrary to popular belief the earliest vendors were really traders that were often very close friends with the Nation, Tribe, Band, Clan, Village or Family of Native Americans.  They were the common blanket traders that were invited to trade items during the event.  These items included ribbons, glass beads, wool, silk, cotton, trade silver, hawks, knifes, guns, and more.  They traded these early European and later American goods for Native American goods of fur hides, tanned leather, food, clothing and more.

As early as the mid-1700s Carver (1778) noted that Native Americans of the Great Lakes would travel to neighboring white towns and hold dances in front of the local trading posts and the traders would respond by giving the Natives presents.

Of course today things are different as most vendors/traders are not suppliers of materials but purveyors of Native American Arts and thus need to comply with the 1990 Indian Arts & Crafts Law.  So make sure you point out to all vendors that they need to know of and make sure they are in compliance with the Indian Arts & Craft Law (P.L. 101-644).  Here is the link for the law and other pertinent information:

If you have any vendors/traders that have only goods/materials/supplies and no actual Native American Art they need not worry about the Indian Arts & Crafts Law.  Example if a vendor only sells Trade Beads and Trade Goods and tools they have nothing that is Native American in origin.

The other major laws to be aware of and make sure that all vendors are in compliance with is that regarding any sales tax that may be required of local, state and or federal authorities.  Some places require that all vendors have a local or State Vendor License and some places require that any vendor that has items of human consumption have either or both local and State Health Licenses or Certificates.  When in doubt about any of the above do some checking and make sure.

Some events only want Native American Vendors/Traders.  If that is the case with your event it needs to be stated and made noticed to everyone from the earliest planning stages. 

WHO: The Native World

The Native American aspects of the event include acquiring and preparing all the following:

Head Staff: MC, Head Veteran, Arena Director, Whip Men, Head Male Dancer, Head Female Dancer, Head Judge, Judges, Drums, and more (depending on the type of event). 

Then you have your Dancers, Drum Arbor, Dance Arena, Vendors, and more. 

Of course the staff one needs depends on the type of powwow and or protocol being presented.  Again seek the advice and wisdom of your Nation/Tribe and others in your Native American Community. 

It is imperative that any committee obtain Head Staff individuals that are well acquainted with and very knowledgeable about their Native American Culture and the protocol of the Native American Powwow.

Plan well and book your Head Staff early.  In this day and age there are so many Native American events all across the United States and Canada.  Head Staff personal and Drums can have prior commitments as much as a year in advance by either verbal or written contracts so it would be very wise to book the Head Staff as quickly as possible.

For any powwow it is wise to have at least two Drums.  If you research the past you may find that one Drum can do an entire powwow alone.  While that may be true, it is not very conducive for the present day powwow.  Two Drums is the absolute minimum; three Drums is better and for most four Drums is perfect as it creates a nice balanced rotation in the various types of songs and dances that will often occur during the powwow.  In any case make and have a strategy on Drums.  Are all Drums invited or just welcomed?  Ordinarily “invited” means you have contracted the Drum or Drums and the committee is disbursing some kind of appreciation to them.  By contrast, “welcome” entails no compensation (although some kind of gift is customarily involved).  Due to space and time is there a limit to the number of Drums?  This is very important and very tricky.  While all Drums may be welcome what happens if you have 10 Drums show up but the venue is so small you can barely fit 4 Drums in the entire setting?  This is when the counsel of your Nation, Tribe and Elders is critically needed.

Once your Head Staff is set, it is wise to have a meeting of all the Head Staff to discuss the powwow etiquette and or protocol expected for the event.  This may concern everything from the set-up of the Dance Arena and Drum Arbor to the subtleties of the opening and closing formalities.

The Non-Native/White World

As much as you may want the powwow to be all Native American that may not be possible.  Even powwows on Tribal Lands may have some non-Native involvement and the main type of participation of course is the non-Native American spectators that are invited to attend because the event is open to the public. 

That brings up Admission.  Is there a charge at the gates?  If so who is charged?  Are dancers charged?  It is common that dancers are not charged at the gates unless required for a contest powwow as already spoken of previously.  But how does one know who is and who is not a dancer.  Some committees ask the dancers to register and show some kind of proof like be in regalia or show some regalia to avoid any admission charges. 

Other events charge anyone and everyone at the gates indicating that the money will all be donated for a good non-profit cause.

The most demanding aspect of Admission is how much to charge.  Try at all measures to keep the price of admission as low as possible for the general public and let the public know exactly where their money is going.  A great idea is have information for the public on the committee sponsoring the event and how the proceeds will be used in the community.  This is when that Mission Statement comes in handy.  This works very well and many times the public have been inspired to not only pay the gate fee but even donate to the committee while still at the gate.

The other more common non-Native association is usually that of monetary support.  One fine example is a very good powwow that takes place in the Great Lakes/Mid-West Region.  Although the powwow is Native planned and Native run, over 60% of the funds to put the event on all come from non-Native American businesses and organizations.

Then there is the IRS.  Are you non-profit and tax exempt?  If so you better be prepared to show it to anyone that asks and if you are then there is a sustainable amount of paperwork required.  Even Native American groups that fall into any category under Section 501 of the IRS Tax Code needs to keep accurate records of anything and everything involving money.

If you are a committee that plans to be around for a few years (at least 5 or more) and you have tactics to provide for the local community (both Native and non-Native) it would wise to acquire your non-profit status with both the State and the Federal Government.  The benefits to being an organization under Section 501 of the IRS Code are quite useful.  They include tax exempt status on purchases of just about everything from food to supplies and more.  The 501 status also helps in obtaining funds as many businesses love to donate both money and materials to 501 groups for tax purposes.

There is one drawback to having 501 status and that is the complicated and often tedious paperwork.  Since it involves the IRS, it is very easy to see that paperwork is a given and keeping track of everything and every penny is a must.  For this cause many committees fail to get 501 status.  But in the long run the advantages far outweigh the menial task of the paperwork.

Finally the other very important part of the powwow that usually always has some non-Native immersion is that of adhering to local, state and or federal laws and ordinances.  We spoke on this earlier and even powwows on Tribal Lands may have to deal with things like the Health Department for food vendors, as well as laws on weapons, parking restrictions, taxes, Disability access, EMS, and more.

Examples: Some states and local municipalities have laws that require EMS for any public event.  Some states and local municipalities have laws that require a certain number of restroom facilities per a certain number of attendees expected.  The same is true that a certain number of Handicapped parking spaces are needed per a certain number of attendees expected.

Here are some things that may need to be addressed and that may need some type of policy when planning a Native American Gathering:

Accommodations: Committee, Head Staff, Volunteers, others



Alcohol, Drug, Weapon Policy




Children’s Activities

Color Guard


Competition Rules & Regulations

Dance Arena

Disability Services & Accessibility

Disaster Plan for fire, tornado, blizzard, etc.


Emergency Services





Gate coverage: Front, Back, Sides




Head Staff: MC, Arena Director, Head Dancers, Drums, etc.

Health Department Regulation for Food Vendors

Hours & Times of the event and that of the venue being used

Information Booth


IRS policies for sales and non-profit paperwork if applicable

Law Enforcement


Media Coverage


Non-Profit/Tax Exempt Status


Parking: Cars, Trucks, RVs, Motorcycles, etc.

Pet Policy

Power & Electric

Powwow Etiquette & Protocol

Prizes or Prize Money



Restroom Facilities




Signs: Directional, Informational, other


Specials: Honor Songs, Blanket Songs, Special Dances, etc.

Staffs & Flags


T-Shirts or other paraphernalia


Venue (outside or inside) and ordinances involved with the venue


Waste Control & Removal



Remember this paper is just broad general information on the many aspects that might be forgotten when planning and organizing a Native American Powwow.  Not all the items in the above list may be applicable to all powwows.

As a final point, it cannot be stressed enough that the intense wisdom, knowledge and intelligence of your Native Nation/Tribe, Elders, Veterans, and Teachers that are astute in this area be sought out and used.


Braine, Susan.  1995.  Drumbeat, Heartbeat: A Celebration of the Powwow.  Minneapolis: Lerner Press.

Browner, Tara.  2002.  Heartbeat of the People: Music and Dance of the Northern Powwow.  Champaign: University of Illinois Press.

Carver, Jonathan.  1778.  Travels Through the Interior Parts of North America, In the Years 1766, 1767, 1768.  London.

Curtis, N.  Ed.  1968.  The Indians Book: Songs and Legends of the American Indians.  New York: Dover Publications.

Ellis, Clyde.  Ed.  2005.  Powwow.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Howard, James, H.  1955.  Pan Indian Culture of Oklahoma.  Scientific Monthly 80: 215-220.

Laubin, Reginald & Gladys.  1977.  Indian Dances of North American: Their Importance to Indian Life.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Lewis, Meriwether.  1814.  (Reprint 1904). History of the Expedition of Captains Lewis and Clark, 1804-5-6.  Chicago: A.C. McClurg.

Parfit, Michael.  1994.  Powwow.  National Geographic 185, 6: 88-113.

Tanner, John & Edwin, James.  1830.  (Reprint 2007).  A Narrative Of The Captivity And Adventures Of John Tanner, U. S. Interpreter At The Saut De Ste. Marie During Thirty Years Residence Among The Indians In The Interior Of North America.  Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing.

Timberlake, Henry, Lt.  1765. (Reprint 2007).  The Memoirs of Lt. Henry Timberlake: The Story of a Soldier, Adventurer, and Emissary to the Cherokees, 1756-1765.  Cherokee, NC: Museum of the Cherokee Press

White, Julia.  1996.  The Powwow Trail: Understanding and Enjoying the Native American Powwow.  Summertown, TN: Book Publishing Company.

William, Bertram.  1791.  Travels Through North & South Carolina, Georgia, East & West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges, or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws; Containing An Account of the Soil and Natural Productions of Those Regions, Together with Observations on the Manners of the Indians. Philadelphia.

© 2011 & 2023 Native American Composition & Performance, Limited

Jamie K. Oxendine, Lumbee/Creek

Native American Speaker

Director, Black Swamp InterTribal Foundation

A Non-Profit 501(c)(3) Native American Organization

Perrysburg, Ohio 43551

3 thoughts on “Planning A Native American Gathering

  1. J. J. Clark
    12:44 pm - 10-13-2023

    Great information. Thanks Mr. Oxendine!

  2. R. Johnstone Parker
    11:15 pm - 11-10-2023

    AWESOME! The Meherrin should read this! The powwow this year was not that good at all and very low in attendance too. We heard they waited till almost the last few weeks before to even really start planning. This is GREAT and I will be sending it to them!

  3. Tim B. Locklear
    1:42 am - 11-26-2023

    Thanks Jamie, we need this to help re-structure our powwow for sure!

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