Etiquette in Indian Country

No good traveler wants to offend their host, or make themselves look stupid. And haven't we all heard the horror stories about people making terrible faux pas like making a thumbs up sign in Bangladesh, or touching a Buddhist person's head or finishing every morsel of food on their plate in China?


In Native America, as you might imagine, there are a myriad of ways in which you can unintentionally put your foot in it. If you take a guided tour with Go Native America we will always keep you in the know and you can feel secure that you will be told before you arrive at any destination what the locals accept and don't accept. But if you are traveling solo, take heed of the following

At the Powwow

Powwows are celebrations, social gatherings and dance competitions. But, as with the sacred thread that runs through all of life, there are sacred traditions to be found in this coming together of people. There is a circle in most dances, representing the circle of unity, the cycle of life. Dancers often follow the clockwise pattern of the sun. When the eagle staff is brought in during the grand entry, everyone stands. Hats are removed in respect. That same respect is shown should an eagle feather fall during the dancing. Everything must stop until a proper returning of the feather has been performed.

  • Pointing with a finger, particularly the index finger, is considered impolite. It's best to indicate a person or direction by pursing the lips and pointing with the eyes or to nod in the direction.

  • Grand Entry. The MC will announce the beginning of Grand Entry and will ask everyone to stand. The Eagle Staff and American Flag will be brought into the dancer arbor and you should remain standing during the Flag Song and the Invocation. The same is asked during the Veterans Songs and Closing Songs and when the Staff and Flags are taken out of the Arbor. Men should remove their hats during these times. 

  • Always Pay Attention and Listen. The MC (master of ceremonies) can be heard via the sound system. He is coordinating the powwow and advises the visitors of additional protocol. Non-natives are welcome at powwow celebrations to learn and share in the cultural and social traditions but are expected to show respect and understanding for these events. 

  • Never Refer To A Dancer's Regalia As a Costume. A dancer's regalia may also be called their outfit. These beautifully handcrafted outfits are not costumes! Much thought, time, energy and expense goes into the making of each outfit and often pieces of the regalia are family heirlooms.

  • Never Touch A Dancer's Regalia. Respect the personal space of dancers as you should for anyone.

  • Use Courtesy and Respect When Photographing. Taking pictures of the dancers during inter-tribal or during dance competition is usually acceptable although camera flashes can be distracting. The MC will let you know when it will be absolutely not acceptable to take photographs. Videotaping is often strongly discouraged.

  • Do Not Enter The Dance Arbor After It Has Been Blessed. At the beginning of the powwow festivities, the Dance Arbor is blessed. Don't cut across the Arbor just to get to the other side!

At Sacred Sites

Despite the annexing of many sacred sites such as Devil’s Tower, Bear Butte, or the Medicine Wheel by federal or state agencies for tourist venues, each is actually an outdoor cathedral. The respectful traveler treats these places as they would a church.  There are many other sacred sites on private land, native or non-native owned and you should always ask permission from a site’s caretaker or guardian before visiting. Be prepared to accept a negative response, and remember some sites should be visited only by those who are initiated. Even after attaining permission from a governing agency you may be offending indigenous people who may not have jurisdiction over their own sacred sites.

  • Dress respectfully; just as shorts and tanks won’t do in church they aren’t appropriate in sacred places – long-sleeved shirts may be a better option.

  • Remember that people of other cultures have different belief systems about sacred time, space and appropriate actions. For example, in most Native American cultures women do not visit sacred sites or ceremony when they are on their moon.

  • Don’t ask to participate. If you can see some cultural activity going on observe from a peripheral distance without disrupting or distracting the practitioners and their cultural activities. Outsiders don’t have the proper instruction or preparation, or the family/tribal ties required for participation.

  • Never try performing rituals of your own that may be culturally unacceptable or offensive. Most sites have people who are specially trained to perform rituals that are traditionally associated with the site.

  • As a rule, you should ask permission before taking photographs, video or film, or before drawing, recording or taking notes. When in doubt, don’t.

  • As a visitor decide if you really need to enter ceremonial sites. If you do, stay on marked trails or walkways. And never move or remove anything at a sacred site. Native American remains and artifacts are protected federally by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which carries stiff penalties.

  • Respect the spirituality. Allow yourself to be part of the landscape. Quietly listen to the wind, rain, and birds; feel the heat of the sun, smell the forest, or enjoy the endless plains.  If you are at a natural sacred site such as a mountain or spring remember that offerings can take many forms. Find a quiet location and sufficient time to experience the spirit of place, and instead of a tangible offering, consider leaving a chant, prayer, song, or dance. 

In communities

All American Indian reservations, villages, and pueblos operate under their own government and may have different rules for visitors. Your general guide should be to exercise common courtesy, but it is a good idea to take a tour. Guided group tours reduce traffic and support the local economy as well as giving you an insider’s viewpoint.   Consider that Native American communities contain a diversity of tribal members who practice varying degrees of tradition. Traditionalists expect tribal members and visitors alike to conduct themselves in a manner that is respectful of tribal religion and ceremonies and therefore, recognize that a code of conduct practiced at one community may not be appropriate at another.

  • Behaviors that are usually frowned upon include excessive questioning regarding ceremonial events, excessive talking or laughing, demanding or sneaking photographs or sketches.

  • If you are at an event, ceremonial or secular, NEVER demand preferential seating or a better view. And remember that an unkempt appearance is very offensive at a ceremonial event, where many people wear their finest (this includes ragged jeans and especially high riding shorts).

  • Treat the residents with courtesy and should you run into a tribal elder who wants to share information or conversation, be a polite and attentive listener. You may think you have already read what they are telling you in some book, but you will be amazed at what you learn if you listen anyway.

  • Don’t interrupt someone's train of thought, don’t jump in when they are explaining something to you, and always allow them to fully say their piece, before you respond. You would be amazed that this even happens with our guides, and ultimately the visitor is the loser for having chosen this form of 'bonhomie' over respect.

  • If food or a meal is offered to you, be polite and accept it. It may seem rude to take food away from folks who have very little, but please understand it is much ruder to decline their generosity. Maybe there is something you can do to be generous back?

  • Alcohol is not permitted on many reservations. Don't take your own - its an offence against tribal bylaws and it is culturally offensive to some tribal members given the history of it's introduction to Indian Reservations and the subsequent multi-generational havoc alcohol has wreaked upon community members past and present.

General tips

​Indian Time - the concept by which thing happen when they happen. It is keenly observed around reservations and Indian communities of Native America. Simply accept it as someone else's way of life... because you cannot change it by tapping your foot impatiently or staring at your watch as if you have better things to do.


You chose to come to Indian Country, and here, things do happen when they happen. So all the way from your server bringing your check slowly, to a powwow Grand Entry not happening at the advertised time, or a Trading Post opening (or closing) late, just relax.


When you get home and tell friends/family what a great time you had, you won't be saying "I ate frybread taco at 6.41pm" you will be relating how it was the most amazing and unexpected meal treat. You won't be telling people "I visited Wounded Knee at 4:09, you will be relating how the simplicity of the Monument and the genuine grief still endured by the People really touched your heart.

Should I learn to speak my hosts' language before I arrive?

Actually the loss of Native languages in so many communities across Native America is a huge problem (most languages have words that describe phenomena and things that have no counterpart in the English language) so you will be unlikely to need fluent Apache, Lakota or Cheyenne for your visit.


However, to learn words such as please, thank you, and hello is polite in any country you visit.


You might be interested to know that very few Native Nations have a word for 'good-bye'. The closest you would get in, for example, Lakota is Toksa - loosely translated to ' I will see you down the road'.