Native American History – How the Powwow Began

“Powwow was an Algonquin term, “pauwau” or “pauau”, which referred to a gathering of medicine men and spiritual leaders. “Pauwauing” referred to a religious ceremony, usually one of curing. In the 1800’s the European explorers observing these religious gatherings and dances mispronounced the word as powwow (Jennings, The Invasion of America, p. 241.) In 1646 the Massachusetts General Court decreed that “no Indian shall at any time pawwaw, or perform outward worship to their false gods, or to the devil….” (~From William Marder). The two syllables pow and wow are not separated or hyphenated. The word appears as “powwow”. |

Native American History - How the Powwow Began
Native American History – How the Powwow Began

Native American ceremonies, commonly known as powwows, have evolved from a formal ceremony of the past into a modern blend of dance, family reunion, and festival. Powwows are famous for their pageantry of colors and dance which have been adapted and changed since their beginnings into a bright, fast, and exciting event geared towards Native Americans and visitors alike. Today powwows are held all across the North American continent, from small towns such as White Eagle, Oklahoma, to some of the largest, such as Los Angeles, California. They can take place anywhere from cow pastures to convention centers, and occur year round. These festivals last only one weekend, but usually draw Native Americans and visitors from hundreds and even thousands of miles away. There is a reason for the hours of travel, a reason that deals with who you are; what you feel and what you believe.

Some come to these celebrations to “contest,” some come to sing songs, some come to see relatives and friends, and some come for the atmosphere. A powwow makes people feel good, a feeling that is mental and physical. For this reason, powwows spread across the plains quickly and today serve as one of the main cultural activities of Native Americans. The powwow is the Native American’s way of meeting together to join in dancing, singing, visiting, renewing old friendships and making new ones. This is a time to renew thoughts of the old ways and to reserve a rich heritage. The Poncas were the first to practice this ceremony, which they call the Hethuska, as early as 1804. They passed the Hethuska to the Kaw, and they in turn gave the dance to the Osage, who named it the “Inlonschka”. The Omaha then acquired the ceremony and spread it north to the Lakota (Sioux) tribe who popularized it on reservations in the late 1890’s.

In this time, the “Omaha”, or “Grass” dance as it was then called, spread faster than the more famous Ghost Dance of the same time. Unlike ceremonial dances of other tribes, the Grass dancers danced for the purpose of dancing itself, instead of as a religious ceremony. Dances have always been an important part of the life of the Native American. Over the years, dance styles and content have changed, their meaning and importance have not. There is a belief held by some in the Native American community that when they were forced onto reservations, they were also forced to have dances for the public to come and see. Before each dance, they were led through the town in a parade. This, according to some, was the beginning of the modern powwow. Powwow singers are also very important figures in the Native American culture. Without them, there would be no dancing. The songs are of many varieties, from religious to war to social.

As various tribes gathered together, they would share their songs, often changing the songs so singers of different tribes could join in. With these changes came the use of “vocables” to replace the words of the old songs. Thus, some songs today are sung in “vocables” with no words. Yet, they still hold special meaning to those who know the song. They are reminders to Native Americans of their old ways and rich heritage. In the 1920’s, some powwows became “inter-tribal,” meaning that they were open for all tribes to attend, and the practice of “contesting” began. Contesting involves dance competitions that may last all weekend, taking into account how often dancers dance as well as how well they may dance. The prizes can run into the thousands of dollars. World War II brought a revival to the powwow world. Ever since, powwows have been growing, constantly changing and adapting to modern ways, while retaining their cultural roots.

Brighter colors, more motions and even a new style of dance have emerged from the passage of time. The Native American culture is not dead and fixed under the glass of a museum. It is, instead, a living culture, retaining its heritage and advancing with the times.

Monroe Aurand, A. & Hohman, J.G. 2003. Powwow Book. New York, NY. Kessinger Publishing Co. This book was originally published in 1929. It is a treatise on the art of healing in the Native American community. Browner, T. 2004. Heartbeat of the People: Music and Dance of the Northern Powwow. Chicago, IL. University of Illinois Press. Browner aims to “offer non-Indian readers an entry point into a richly textured realm of music and dance.” The book documents the contemporary inter-tribal pow wow. Hohman, J.G. 1971. Powwows: Long Lost Friend, a Collection of Mysteries and Invaluable Arts and Remedies. New York, NY. Health Research. This books looks at the beliefs and medical practices of many American cultures including Native Americans. Left Hand Bull, Jaqueline. 1999. Lakota Hoop Dancer. Chicago, IL. Dutton Books. This is a children’s book for ages 9-12. It is loaded with photographs of traditional dancers. White, J. C. 1995. The Pow Wow Trail. Chicago, IL. Book Publishing Company.

This book attempts to explain the traditions and happenings of the traditional Native American Powwow.

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