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Each week, KCUR's Adventure! newsletter brings you a new way to explore the Kansas City region.

A beginner's guide to Kansas City-area powwows and Native culture festivals

Wichita’s Party for the People, held on the grounds of the Mid-America All-Indian Museum most often in May, is an annual celebration of Indigenous culture that incorporates food and arts and crafts vendors, speeches, informational exhibits and more.
Haines Eason
/
KCUR 89.3
Wichita’s Party for the People, held on the grounds of the Mid-America All-Indian Museum most often in May, is an annual celebration of Indigenous culture that incorporates food and arts and crafts vendors, speeches, informational exhibits and more.

Want to learn more about Native American events happening across Kansas and the Kansas City region? Here's a guide to understanding, appreciating and visiting local powwows, assembled with input from the Kansas City Indian Center.

This story was first published in KCUR's Adventure! newsletter. You can sign up to receive stories like this in your inbox every Tuesday.

Kansas is home to four federally recognized Native American tribes — the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska (White Cloud), the Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas (Horton), the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation (Mayetta) and the Sac and Fox Nation of Missouri in Kansas and Nebraska (Reserve).

Perhaps the most public way that these and many other tribes today celebrate their culture is in the form of a powwow.

The Smithsonian Center for Folklife & Cultural Heritage reports that the word powwow comes from “‘Pau Wau, meaning ‘medicine man’ in Narrtick, a language spoken by the Algonquian peoples in Massachusetts.” White settlers appropriated the term, using it to “refer to the meetings of Indigenous medicine men, and later to any kind of American Indian gathering.”

Many Native Americans have since reclaimed the term, and today, it’s associated with Indigenous gatherings that most closely resemble those of North American Plains tribes.

According to Indiana University’s First Nations Educational & Cultural Center, today’s powwows and the styles of dancing associated with them “have their roots in the historic warrior societies of the Southern and Northern Plains.” Individual tribes’ historical, specific ceremonies have evolved over time into contemporary intertribal celebrations, open celebrations of “culture, dance, song, crafts, food, and pageantry.”

We put together this guide to understanding, appreciating and visiting Kansas City-region powwows, with the help of Tokeya Richardson, a Native American artist and Kansas City Indian Center youth and families coordinator.

Just as a note: Missouri is not home to a federally-recognized tribe, which is why you won’t find that side of the metro in this guide.

Inside the powwow

Not all powwows are the same, so the best thing you can do if you plan to attend one is keep an open mind. And, pay extra attention if you’re new to powwows or not a tribal member.
Haines Eason
/
KCUR 89.3
Not all powwows are the same, so the best thing you can do if you plan to attend one is keep an open mind. And, pay extra attention if you’re new to powwows or not a tribal member.

Not all powwows are the same, so the best thing you can do if you plan to attend one is keep an open mind. And, pay extra attention if you’re new to powwows or not a tribal member.

If you want just one source of guidance, almost every powwow has an emcee — an announcer who provides attendees with directions, announces dances and performances and gives reminders. Focus on this person and you’ll know what, and what not, to do.

The Native American gathering ground The Forks has a helpful and concise explainer that covers the “parts of” a powwow:

The grand entry: In this opening phase, all participants who will be singing and dancing enter in a predetermined order. Dignitaries are first, then royalty, then the dancers. It’s customary to stand and remove head coverings throughout the grand entry and the following phases.

The prayer: a blessing for the day offered by the emcee.

The flag song: following the prayer, it may be sung in the presence of the eagle staff, a symbol present among Native American tribes “before any other flag was.” There may be one staff or many, with each representing “a different nation or family, or even an organization.”

The veterans song: Powwows’ opening ceremonies usually conclude with a song for both veterans present and “the ones who have either died on the battlefield or are no longer with us.”

What to know about powwow etiquette

Before you attend a powwow, take time to learn the etiquette. It's important to ask before taking photos, and treat the dancing area — the circle — as a sacred space.
Haines Eason
/
KCUR 89.3
Before you attend a powwow, take time to learn the etiquette. It's important to ask before taking photos, and treat the dancing area — the circle — as a sacred space.

Tokeya Richardson has some straightforward advice for folks wanting to attend a powwow: “Treat it like you're going into somebody's house.”

Or, he says, think of it as a sacred space — which it is. “It's kind of universal that everyone understands that when they go into church, they're respectful, they don't really touch anything. You are not supposed to touch anything whenever you go into somebody else's house, either.”

Beyond touching without permission, Richardson says the top question he and other powwow performers and attending artists receive is whether they’ll pose for a picture. Richardson himself is a dancer and has been asked in both contexts.

“I think a lot of the public thinks that because we're dancing, that we're performing for the public, and that's not really even really how it is,” he says. “We're appreciative that you're there to see and witness this, but we're not there for you, you being the spectator.”

“I think the public misconstrues that and starts to think like, ‘You're performing and it's your duty to stop and take pictures whenever I throw money at you.’ And it's like, ‘No, I'm still a person. I'm still practicing my cultural values and my ways in this.’”

Richardson says he’s seen powwow attendees “get pretty upset at being told ‘no,’ or at least ‘wait a minute.'" He added that it can feel like “people just kind of think that, ‘oh, well, I'm here supporting you.’”

Richardson is emphatic on this point: “If you were supporting me, you would've bought my food. You would've paid for my room, paid for my gas to be here.”

Richardson’s guidance? Always ask before you touch or take a picture. Always offer something to a person you wish to photograph — a bottle of water or some cash, for instance. Be deferential, be kind, be respectfully curious. And, if you don’t know what to do, watch, wait and ask when the time seems appropriate.

Lastly, treat the dancing area — the circle — as a sacred space, just as visiting Native Americans do. Don’t cut across the circle between dances or when it seems like there’s a pause in the action. Always go around the circle, and only enter to dance — and only dance if invited.

Powwows in the Kansas City region

Two dancers take part in celebrations at Wichita’s Party for the People
Haines Eason
/
KCUR 89.3
Wichita’s Party for the People, held on the grounds of the Mid-America All-Indian Museum most often in May, is an annual celebration of Indigenous culture.

If you’re ready to explore the diversity of powwows in the KC area, you’re in luck: You have several options, and they occur throughout the year, meaning there’s likely one that will work with your schedule.

The annual Haskell powwow is a Lawrence tradition and is a celebration of the return of the Haskell community to campus. This powwow has most recently occurred in March, but it’s worth monitoring the student newspaper, The Indian Leader, at the start of the new year for details.

Held most recently at Haskell’s Coffin Sports Complex, The Indian Leader reports that “many come to Haskell’s powwow to participate in dance competitions and drumming circles, set up shops to sell their handmade items, clothes and food, or simply mingle with family and friends.”

Dubbed by some as the “KU Powwow,” this combined powwow and festival event is hosted by the University of Kansas First Nations Student Association and is held annually on the grounds of KU’s Lied Center in mid-April.

This event’s powwow dances are judged and there are multiple cash prizes awarded. With that in mind, please come with the intention of giving performers space as they prepare to dance, dance and then recover after their dancing.

The festival is a rich event offering art unveilings, panel discussions, round tables, cultural learning opportunities, film screenings and more. The festival and the powwow are exceedingly memorable and worth making plans for well in advance.

Wichita’s Party for the People, held on the grounds of the Mid-America All-Indian Museum most often in May, is an annual celebration of Indigenous culture, the All-Indian Museum and the iconic Keeper of the Plains statue that looms over the celebration. As with the powwows listed above, this one is also a festival that incorporates food and arts and crafts vendors, speeches, informational exhibits and more.

  • Washunga Days annual music and community festival — June 21-22, 2024

Council Grove’s Washunga Days is a larger multicultural festival of which the Kaw Nation Intertribal Powwow is an important part. As to be expected, the festival features a wide array of entertainment, including regional and semi-national music acts. The powwow itself is both nights, with registration at 6 p.m. and the powwow at 7:30.

One of a few powwows held annually in September, the Iowa Tribe’s in White Cloud, Kansas, is one that may offer visitors a more scenic experience than most others. The reservation authority reports its roads are “minimally maintained,” and they note that “if Google Maps is directing you to turn onto 330th St. from HWY 7, we would recommend choosing an alternative route.” Be sure to monitor updates to the page found via the link above for more information as the date approaches.

Another September powwow, the Medicine Lodge Intertribal, is at the town’s newly developed powwow grounds at Memorial Peace Park. This powwow’s announcement calls out the presence of food vendors, specifically vendors selling always popular fry bread and Indian tacos.

Looking for more?

Two handprints painted on a Native American drum.
Haines Eason
/
KCUR 89.3
If you're looking for more Kansas community resources, guides and FAQs, powwow.com is an essential resource.

If you want to deepen your awareness of powwows in our region and beyond, powwows.com is an essential resource. The site offers exclusive information — details on specific powwows are just a starting point — such as community resources, guides and FAQs, livestreams and more.

Lastly, be sure to also make a visit to Haskell Indian Nations University. The university is a leading Native American institution among the many in the Native American Higher Education Consortium. And its Cultural Center & Museum offer rich collections of art, artifacts, photographs and much else besides.

Haines Eason is the owner of startup media agency Freelance Kansas. He went into business for himself after a stint as a managing editor on the content marketing team at A Place for Mom. He has worked as a communications professional at KU, as a journalist with bylines in places like The Guardian, The Pitch, KANSAS! Magazine, and as a teacher, guidance counselor, and more. Learn about him and Freelance Kansas on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, and Threads.
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