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Celebrating Life At A Native American Powwow

“Traditionally, the powwow is a celebration of the season of harvest,” says Jan Quigg, commissioner of the Kentucky Native American Commission, although powwows are now held in spring and summer, too. They are a time to get together to dance, sing, tell stories, renew old friendships, make new ones, and connect on a spiritual level.

This month Kentucky’s Native American communities will host powwows in four cities–Hopkinsville, Richmond, London, and Louisville–and everyone is welcome at these gatherings.
“We try to provide an educational experience for people of all ages,” says Quigg. The Kentucky Native American Commission seeks to make Kentuckians aware of and to develop an appreciation for the significant contributions Native Americans have made to Kentucky’s rich cultural heritage. Most powwows even invite teachers to bring school children, during one educational day on a weekday at the beginning of the powwow, in order to share the Native American culture. This should be set up in advance with each individual powwow.

While no Native American tribes were based in Kentucky at the time the state was settled by the white man, many from surrounding states used it as a hunting ground. The Commonwealth now claims a Native American population of 8,000, although countless other Kentuckians share this ancestry.

“I love to see the baseball field turned into sacred ground,” says Quigg, who is also one of the founders of the Richmond Powwow Association, which hosts the 8th annual Richmond Powwow September 27-29 on the baseball field at Irvine-McDowell Park.

Visitors arriving at a powwow might want to start by checking out the many vendor booths and demonstrations to learn more about this culture and its people.

“We’ll have bow makers, flint knappers, and craft demonstrations (beading, basket making, and leatherwork),” says Beverly Baker, treasurer of the Cherokee Trail of Tears Powwow Commission in Hopkinsville. There will also be a Plains-style tepee at which Anita Moone of Smithland will demonstrate cooking and pottery skills.

“We usually have a good show,” Baker says. The powwow serves as the Trail of Tears Commemorative Park’s annual fund-raiser as well.

This year’s 15th annual Trail of Tears Powwow will be held September 7-8; about 16,000 visitors and participants are expected to attend from all over the world.

“Our vendors are here by invitation only and we limit it to 30, so we try to get the best,” Baker says. This powwow is also a competition one, which attracts a high standard of dancers from many tribes.

“But our emphasis is on the Cherokee,” she says. The historic park is one of the few documented sites of the actual Trail of Tears forced removal of the Cherokees from the Southern Appalachians to Oklahoma. The site was used as an encampment from 1838-1839 and holds the graves of two Cherokee chiefs.

This year, Baker says organizers are planning a special tribute to Richard “Geet” Crowe, of Cherokee, North Carolina, who died earlier this year. “Geet Crowe was a model for one of the statues that stand in the park,” says Baker.

Dancing, Singing, Storytelling

Soon the visitor will be drawn by the beat of the drum toward the arena for dancing, singing, and storytelling.

The arena itself is steeped in symbolism and tradition. The circular shape reflects the Native American connection to nature. The Earth, sun, and moon are all round. The birth-to-death cycle is depicted as the circle of life.

At the arena entrance–always facing east–there is usually an arbor or awning of some sort to shade the drum (also a circle).

Five poles are erected in the arena. The tallest is the spirit pole in the center, from which the American flag flies. Four smaller ones are placed at each of the cardinal directions. The eastern pole bears a red ribbon and represents the season of spring. The Prisoner of War/Missing in Action (POW/MIA) flag flies on that pole. The southern pole’s yellow ribbon symbolizes summer; the western pole’s black one, autumn; and the northern pole’s white one, winter.

The flags are brought into the arena by a color guard of veterans during the Grand Entry, followed by a parade of Native American dancers.

All veterans–not only Native Americans–are honored at powwows with special dances. Sometimes an emcee will invite family members into the arena to honor loved ones who served their country.

“The veterans’ dance helps us preserve the warrior part of our culture,” explains Jeff Hatmaker, a member of the Cherokee Nation who makes his home at Paint Lick in Madison County. While Hatmaker himself is a veteran of the U.S. Navy, he dances primarily to honor other veterans. It is in honor of veterans that the U.S. and POW/MIA flags fly at a powwow.

Singers in the drum provide dancers and listeners with a variety of songs–from religious to warrior to social. Known collectively as the drum, the musicians also sit around a large drum and beat the rhythm of each dance.

“The drum is the heartbeat of Mother Earth,” Commissioner Quigg says.

Kentucky powwows generally have dancers from many tribes and various styles of expertise, but most of the Northern and Southern dance styles you will see here, as described by, are:

Men’s Fancy: the most popular style; has two dance movements: a basic simple step and a “contest” step with fast and intricate footwork, combined with a spinning up-and-down movement of the body.

Men’s Grass:originally a warrior society dance, it is now the most competitive form of Northern-style dancing. The movements are believed to have come from the act of stomping down prairie grass in preparation for a powwow.

Men’s Straight : a very stately Southern-style dance.

Men’s Traditional: a Northern-style dance that has emerged in recent years and evolved from an old Sioux style. The movement resembles either that of a prairie chicken or of a warrior searching for the enemy.

Ladies’ Buckskin (Northern Traditional) and Cloth (Southern Traditional): the oldest styles for women dancers, both are elegant, reverent, and graceful. The movements are smooth and flowing, with a slight bending at the knees and short half steps.

Ladies’ Fancy Shawl or Northern Shawl:the newest form of women’s dance, the bright-colored shawls are worn over the shoulders and movements mimic a butterfly in flight.

Ladies’ Jingle Dress or Prayer Dress: originated from a dream in which the dress was seen as an object to bring healing to afflicted people. The dress is made up of many trumpet-shaped metal objects hung with ribbons and tied closely together so that they jingle as the dancer moves, making a beautiful sound.

When a dancer raises a feather or fan during a dance, it is to honor the drum. If you listen carefully, you’ll note the change in tempo and beat during the “honor” beats of a song.

Whenever the emcee announces an intertribal dance, everyone is invited to join in from the entrance. The stately intertribal dance step is simple to learn. Dancers always move in a clockwise direction.

No powwow would be complete without hearing the stories passed down for generations and the haunting sounds of the flute.

So come celebrate life where people become one in harmony with nature.

Kentucky Native American Festivals

In Kentucky, a listing of Native American festivals is maintained at

You can also learn more about the proposed Kentucky Native American Arts and Cultural Center at A Gathering Place at

Powwow Etiquette

If you go, here are a few etiquette tips and rules to keep in mind:

* Join in the intertribal dancing, but always through the entrance, never by stepping over hay bales into the arena.

* Do talk with the dancers outside the arena.

* Do not touch the regalia of the dancers or photograph them outside the arena, unless permission is granted first.

* Show respect for a fallen eagle feather by not photographing or touching it.

* Do not photograph the Grand Entry or anything the emcee prohibits photographing.

* Do not bring alcohol, illegal drugs, or guns to the powwow grounds.

Adhere to these and all rules in the individual powwow’s program.

Powwows Coming to You

Four major Native American powwows are scheduled in Kentucky this fall:

September 7-8

15th Annual Trail of Tears Powwow, Cherokee Trail of Tears Park, Hopkinsville; Beverly Baker, (270) 886-8033, or e-mail

September 27-29

8th Annual Richmond Area Powwow, Irvine-McDowell Park, Richmond; Jan Quigg, (859) 623-6076, or e-mail

October 11-13

Annie Tramper Fall Indian Festival, Laurel County Fairgrounds, London; Martha Jones, (606) 877-1609.

October 26-28

3rd Annual Unity Gathering/Festival, E.P. “Tom” Sawyer State Park, Louisville; Bruce Brading, (502) 532-7290 or Randy Jackson, (502) 969-1339.

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