The young pageant contestant shuffles between the dancer and drummer registration tables, trying to figure out where she is supposed to be.

"Well, I'm competing," explains Noreen Johnson, 19, to the event staffers at the National Powwow. She is a pageant princess from the Ute tribe, here to participate in the opening procession and a native dress competition. "Royalty, they represent, like, different organizations from different tribes."

Puzzled faces return the sweet smile that is slowly stiffening.

"Sorry! Ask Tricia over there," a woman suggests. But nah, Tricia shakes her head. Johnson, of Whiterocks, Utah, and a former Miss Native American at her high school, goes back to find her grandparents and laments: "They'd never heard of it!"

Johnson is one of hundreds of pageant winners, native dancers and color guard members who gathered yesterday at MCI Center for the three-day event. The National Powwow, which drew more than 20,000 to the Mall in its inaugural year, has been one of the largest social gatherings for Native Americans across the continent, keeping at its core one lofty goal: preserving centuries-old traditions for tribal youth growing up in modernity. There is the Tiny Tots dance and dress competitions for youngsters ages 5 and under, the tribal elders who hold forth about hard-fought battles, and the drum-driven victory songs that rush the heartbeat of any spectator.

"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the National Powwow! We're liiive and ready," booms the voice from the main stage of the arena. "Once we set up our satellite feed we'll be visible in 150 countries."

Ears perk up in the stands.

"No, just kidding," says Jason Good Striker, a Canadian emcee. "It's just us here."

"Us" was expected to include an estimated 800 Native Americans participating in the tableau of culture and competition, hosted by the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. Among them was Johnson, a rising sophomore at Colorado Mountain College and a veteran of tribal pageants and powwows. ("Just a thing my family does: Powwows.") She's wearing jeans, a black Old Navy blouse over a white tank top and flip-flops. Her traditional regalia is folded in a duffel bag, and soon she heads to the dressing room to prepare for the processional Grand Entry.

In the official powwow protocol guide, museum officials advise the uninitiated: Don't call the regalia a "costume," the term is "considered derogatory to many, and implies garishness." Also: "Do not touch a dancer's outfit without his or her permission." And please, please remember that the clothing, eagle feathers and dance shields "hold personal, historic, and religious significance and are cared for in a sacred manner."

We walk past dancers wearing jingle dresses -- used in healing dances, they have rows of small, dangling aluminum cones that, when swayed, create a shimmery song -- and follow Johnson past a flimsy black curtain. She dumps her duffel bag in the locker room that serves as the green room for performers and reaches down for her moccasins, beaded white with a red rose pattern. She spends a couple minutes lacing them, and then stands upright and puts on her traditional dress, made of turquoise trade cloth, over black soccer shorts.

Her tribal pageant crown, decorated entirely with an assortment of beads colored white, lavender, turquoise, orange and ruby, stands six inches tall on the dry shower floor. At one point, a fellow powwow participant hangs her regalia on a shower head.

Northern traditional style of regalia, in which women wear buckskin dresses and men wear on their backs a large, circular bustle made of eagle feathers, sometimes 14 inches long, and hold in each hand a leather war shield, beaded medicine pouch, an eagle staff or feathered fan, should probably not be placed around shower drains.

Tribe and family traditions dictate how ceremonial clothing should be handled, Johnson says, as she carries on the transformation from modern to traditional wear. She wraps white cotton bands around her two French braids and arranges an eagle feather near the nape of her neck, steadying it while facing the mirror.

Sitting on the floor a few feet away is Charlene Duncan, her grandmother, who endures a five-minute battle with her own moccasins. She wins and moves on with the rest of her southern traditional cloth outfit while chatting with Maria Mendoza of Rockville, who is struggling to buckle a thick, rose-embroidered leather belt.

Outside the showers, Wanda Bowers is trying to cover the totally non-traditional piercing on her daughter, Christine McCall, 18, the recently crowned Florida Miss Seminole.

"I can't wear it like that, Mom, it looks stupid!" says McCall, deeply unsatisfied with the position of her beaded crown. Bowers suggests she remove the steel barbell in her ear. (Not a chance.) "When you're royalty, you have a tradition to uphold and must respect your tribe," Bowers says. "That's why we're asking her to take it out. But she's a freshman in college and thought it was cool."

"Can we go out there now?" demands Christine.

And so they walk out and prepare for the grand procession, joining scores of others for a native tradition.

The singing and drumming group Illegal from Ada, Okla., was one of several to perform.As dancers take part in the National Powwow's Grand Entry processional, left and above, Jakobi Omeasoo of Ontario points out a particular favorite, below.Dayyokay Lone, 11, of the Tonawanda Seneca Nation, awaits his turn to enter.Joe Syrette, from left, John Syrette, Mike Willis and Nathan Issac, members of the Bear Creek Singers from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, sing and drum at the National Powwow at MCI Center.