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Discover Indigenous Culture at the United Tribes International Powwow.

North Dakota

Discover Indigenous Culture at the United Tribes International Powwow

North Dakota Tourism/Jason Lindsey
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    North Dakota

It’s a weekend of dancing, singing and drums.

Hundreds of Native Americans from more than 70 tribes from all over the U.S. gather for the United Tribes International Powwow in the Lone Star Arena at United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, North Dakota. For nearly 50 years, the monumental three-day event has brought thousands of visitors to the Great Plains to experience unique cultures of indigenous communities.

About the International Powwow

The U.S. was originally populated by native tribes that claimed their own territories and developed cultures and traditions. Historically, tribes set aside differences to join in a “powwow,” or gathering, where they celebrated, competed and found common ground. The International Powwow continues this custom every September, highlighting native traditions in dancing, drumming, singing, and arts and crafts from area tribes such as the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, Standing Rock Dakota-Lakota, Yavapai-Apache Nation and Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate.

Explore Traditional Arts and Crafts

Native American artisans are famous for creating unique jewelry, pottery, rugs, woven baskets and other fine goods crafted with gold, silver, gemstones, beadwork and woven art that reflect the aesthetics and cultural traditions of their tribes. Northern tribes favor Black Hills gold, while Southwestern tribes prefer silver, turquoise and precious stones. Upwards of 40 artists sell their work at the powwow, ranging from ornate handcrafted jewelry to war shields to pottery that showcases the individual history and handiwork of their tribes.

Learn About Native Song and Dance

Dances are universal across Native American tribes, and while one tribe may have a dance style of its own, nearly all tribes share many of the same type of dances. These dances often serve as a method of storytelling and have been passed from generation to generation. Some dances and songs are used as prayer before a hunt or battle, beseeching the spirits for success. Other dances, such as the rain dance or the sun dance, were intended to ask spirits to change the weather. 

Throughout the weekend, the powwow hosts several judged competitions for traditional dance, clothing and song. Powwow drums, usually played by three to four drummers, serve as the heartbeat for these dances, featuring colorful hoops, dazzling feathered costumes and headdresses. 

A woman who participates in the jingle dance, for example, would wear a “jingle dress” adorned with dozens of metal cones that ring in tandem with her footwork. A number of traditional dances encourage audience participation, such as the friendship dance, which invites the crowd to join in the celebration.

What to Eat

County fair food — a modern tradition of fried sweet and salty foods such as hotdogs, popcorn and cotton candy — dominates the offerings at the event. Periodically, the powwow has a vendor featuring traditional Native American foods, such as fry bread (a fried, yeasty bread). The main event is its annual “buffalo feed” barbecue featuring buffalo meat steaks and burgers, along with sides such as coleslaw, potatoes and corn on the cob.

Other Native American Sites to See

While visiting the International Powwow, take in the rich cultural history of dozens of Mandan tribes in the Bismarck area. Explore a 400-year-old village with reconstructed earth lodges at On-A-Slant Mandan Indian Village, about 20 kilometers from the powwow. In Bismarck, take an interpretive walking tour through the remnants of lodges, refuse mounds and fortifications at Double Ditch Indian Village or see an archeological dig at Chief Lookings Village at Pioneer Park.

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