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Pow Wows in California

Pow Wows in California

Learn how to attend these celebratory gatherings organized by Native American tribes

While sacred Native American ceremonies and rituals in California are limited to tribal members, Pow Wows give the public a chance to directly experience authentic aspects of indigenous cultures. During these celebratory gatherings, tribes from all over the country come together for dancing, singing, drumming, and feasting. Filled with color and sound, Pow Wows are exhilarating events, as participants of all ages, from children to tribal elders, wear exquisitely crafted ceremonial dress detailed with feathers, bells, and elaborate bead- and shellwork.

The inclusive spirit of a Pow Wow means that everyone who attends plays their own part in the event. As the website for the Morongo Thunder and Lightning Pow Wow explains, “There are no ‘spectators’ at a Pow Wow. All who attend are regarded as participants. Each one of us has a place in the circle of people. Within this circle there is no beginning and no end. This coming together is the heart of the traditional Pow Wow.”

Organized by the Morongo Band of Mission Indians and typically attended by more than 25,000 people, the Thunder & Lightning Pow Wow is considered one of the best events of its kind, not only in California but the entire country. California has a busy annual schedule of Pow Wows and these events take place throughout the state, with September being an especially busy month. To get the most out of attending a Pow Wow, it helps to better understand the tradition and what to expect. Here’s a quick look at Pow Wows and the major events organized by California tribes.

The Origins of Pow Wow

The term Pow Wow (also spelled Powwow and Pow-Wow) has been often appropriated and turned into a generic term for any kind of gathering, thereby divorcing the concept from its cultural roots. But Pow Wow has a deep meaning that reaches far back into Native American culture.

The term is generally believed to derive from the Algonquian pau wau, which means “he who dreams” and was synonymous with medicine men. The Algonquian language was spoken in areas from the East Coast to the Great Plains, and the tradition of summer gatherings between different tribes began on the plains. In fact, most of the songs, dances, and regalia of Pow Wows, even in California, come from the cultures of the northern and southern plains.

As tribes were increasingly confined to reservations, the Pow Wow tradition went into a decline, especially because of the federal government’s crackdown on dances and other rituals. A revival began in the 1960s as more Native Americans began to come into contact with one another outside of reservations and, despite cultural differences between tribes, recognized a common heritage that’s at the heart of Pow Wows today.

Native California Pow Wow, Santa Ynez Chumash

How to Watch a Pow Wow

The following tips were compiled from an assortment of individual Pow Wow and tribal sources, including the Morongo Thunder and Lightning Pow Wow website. Pow Wows may vary in their specifics, but this is a good overview of what to expect.

—The announcer or master of ceremonies plays a major role during the event, both by narrating and explaining what is happening and by maintaining the momentum and energy of the Pow Wow.

—As its name implies, The Grand Entry is a ceremonial process that begins the Pow Wow. Everyone is expected to stand and remove their hats.

—Many dancers and singers participate in Pow Wows simply to honor and carry out cultural traditions. But some Pow Wows also hold competitions during which groups of singers and dancers, some of whom travel on the national Pow Wow circuit throughout the year, compete for top honors and monetary awards.

—There are several different kinds of dances with their own specific clothing and regalia, including buckskin and fancy shawl dancing. A panel of judges evaluates the dancers based on the quality of their regalia, intricacy of footwork, and precision.

—The symbolism of circles is important at Pow Wows. Circles represent the ongoing cycle of life that has no beginning or end, as well as the connectedness of all things. Pow Wows are set up in a series of concentric circles, with dance and drum circles; the round shape of the drums themselves is also consistent with the symbolism of the circle.

—There are two primary styles of Pow Wow songs. Slower, longer, and higher pitched, the Northern comes from the traditions of the upper Great Plains and into Canada and the Great Lakes. The Southern style has its roots in Oklahoma.

—Bird Songs are an ancient tradition of the Cahuilla and Kumeyaay people of Southern California. According to the Thunder & Lightning Pow Wow website, there are more than 300 Bird Songs. Instead of the drums used during most Pow Wow songs, Bird Songs are accompanied by gourd rattles filled with seeds. 

Pow Wow Etiquette

These general guidelines were selected from such sources as Indian Country Today and Powwows.com, both of which offer more detailed explanations of what is expected of Pow Wow audience members.

The basic rule is to behave respectfully and follow the rules laid out by the organizers. While Pow Wows are not specifically religious, there’s still a sacred and ceremonial aspect to them.

And it’s especially important to treat participants with respect. Ask permission before photographing them and never touch the dancers’ or singers’ regalia. And regalia is the preferred term—never use “costume” because it’s considered an insult.

Where to Attend Pow Wows in California

Throughout California, tribes, nonprofits, cities, and universities host traditional Pow Wows. For a schedule of California Pow Wows, you can conduct a search at powwows.com or newsfromnativecalifornia.com. There’s also an updated list of Southern California events on the San Manuel tribe’s SoCal Pow Wow page.

The following Pow Wows are all multiday events organized and administered by specific tribes. The Pow Wow list is arranged by the usual scheduled month (September is especially busy) for individual events.


Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians

Pechanga Pow Wow, Temecula


San Luis Rey Band of Mission Indians

Intertribal Pow Wow, Oceanside

Susanville Indian Rancheria

SIR Pow Wow, Susanville


Barona Band of Mission Indians

Barona Powwow, Lakeside

Bishop Paiute Tribe

Bishop Pabanamanina Pow Wow, Bishop

Morongo Band of Mission Indians

Morongo Thunder and Lightning Powwow, Cabazon

Redding Rancheria

Redding Rancheria Stillwater Pow Wow, Redding

San Manuel Band of Mission Indians

San Manuel Pow Wow, San Bernardino

Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation

Sycuan Pow Wow, El Cajon

Tule River Indian Tribe of California

Tule River Powwow, Porterville


Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians

Chumash Intertribal Pow-Wow, Santa Ynez

Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians

Chukchansi Pow Wow, Coarsegold


Cabazon Band of Cahuilla Indians

Cabazon Indio Powwow, Indio

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