Photographing Native American Powwows: Planning, Etiquette and Tips

Text and Photography by Chuck Place

I could feel the drum beat in my bones, almost like a heart beat.

Native American dancers seemed to float just above the dance floor, red rock canyon walls towering over the dance arena. I was photographing the annual Gallup Inter Tribal Indian Ceremonial and the spectacle of so many dancers gathered together was quite amazing.

A 300mm f2.8 lens separates a Fancy Dancer

A 300mm f2.8 lens separates a Fancy Dancer from the other dancers.

In the Southwest, powwows also include demonstration dances by various Pueblo, Navajo and Apache tribal members in addition to the usual powwow dance categories. There is a lot going on and it isn’t always easy to capture the strength, energy and pride of the dancers in a single still image.

camera panning separates dancers

A slow shutter speed of 1/30 and panning separates a fairly sharp dancer from the other dancers.

Powwows take place all over the U.S. and Canada and a schedule of events can be found at several web sites, including https://www.powwows.com/2018-pow-wow-calendar/. These are often gatherings of many different tribal groups and have become a celebration of Native American culture.

Women's Fancy Shawl Dancers.

A long lens isolates a group of Women’s Fancy Shawl Dancers.

Before we get started, let’s talk first about etiquette at these events.

Not all powwows allow photography. Some allow still photography but not video. Some will allow photography but no sound recording. Do a little research and make sure photography is allowed before you pull out a camera.

If photography is allowed, that generally means in the dance arena or demonstration areas only. If you come across a dancer outside these venues–always, always, always ask permission! Never step onto the dance floor and if a ceremony is about to take place and the announcer asks that no photographs be taken, lay your camera down and don’t touch it until the ceremony has ended. These are Native American events and they set the rules. We are only visitors.

photographing dancer regalia at a powwow

A 70mm-200mm zoom lens allows you to capture details of dance regalia.

Powows can be held anywhere, even a high school football field. If you want a clean background, without goal posts, get there early and stake out your spot. I try to get right on the edge of the dance arena and sit on the ground or at the top of the grandstands, if they are available.

A high or low shooting angle pretty well eliminates backgrounds and these locations keep other people from blocking my view.

Apache Crown Dancers

Apache Crown Dancers are a fast moving photo subject.

I tend to shoot with two camera bodies, one mounted with a 70mm—200mm zoom lens and the other a fixed 300mm lens. Sometimes dancers are close, but often I need to reach out and isolate a single dancer. These two lenses will handle most dance floor situations. I also carry a 24mm-70mm zoom lens for portraits outside the dance arena.

Individual photo portrait off of the dance floor.

Individual photo portrait off of the dance floor.

I shoot these lenses hand-held and rely on fast shutter speeds for tack sharp images. One of my favorite approaches, however, is using shutter drag, or a slow shutter speed, to create a degree of image blur that illustrates the shape of the dancers motion. It’s really fun.

Zuni Pueblo Turkey Dancer.

Slow shutter speed captures the motion of a Zuni Pueblo Turkey Dancer.

This technique is just a matter of stopping down the lens aperture to eliminate light and then slowing down the shutter speed to compensate for a proper exposure. You can pan with the dancers to blur the background as well, or even tilt the camera during the pan to create even more blur. These can become quite abstract, so try different shutter speeds to get just the right amount of blur, which is a very subjective decision.

I have covered quite a number of these events and occasionally found I was the only anglo face in the crowd. I have always found Native Americans to be gracious and have never been made to feel like an intruder. Follow the rules, ask permission and be open to the spirituality that is part of some of these dances. Powwows offer a glimpse into proud, ancient cultures which we get to explore with our cameras. Look and learn with an open mind and have a great time.

Enjoy the experience.