The term “powwow” derives from Pau Wau, meaning “medicine man” in Narrtick, a language spoken by the Algonquian peoples in Massachusetts. English settlers began misusing the word to refer to the meetings of Indigenous medicine men, and later to any kind of American Indian gathering. American Indians have since reclaimed the term.
The modern-day powwow evolved from the Grass Dance Societies that formed in the early 19th Century. The term “Grass Dance” can get rather confusing because there is also a style of dancing called “Grass Dance” that became popular during the reservation period in the mid-19th Century. The Grass Dance Societies were an opportunity for the warriors to re-enact deeds for all the members of the Tribe to witness.
For centuries, American Indian communities have conducted ceremonial gatherings. Modern powwows, however, derive from more recent ceremonies that began in the Plains area. In the late nineteenth century, the U.S. government seized swaths of land from the Lakota, Dakota, Blackfoot, and Ojibwa peoples in the Northern Plains and from Kiowa, Comanche, Pawnee, and Ponca peoples in the Southern Plains. This period of forced migration and upheaval resulted in great intertribal exchange and solidarity among Plains Indians.
Two intertribal traditions emerged during this period: The Drum Religion and the Grass Dance (or Helushka Society). The Drum Religion was a sacred drum ritual that fostered peace and friendship, while the Grass Dance was an adapted form of ancient warrior dances. Both emphasized the value of generosity and gift-exchange. As these were diffused throughout the Plains, other tribes amended and adapted them. They became homecoming celebrations when families and communities separated by government removal could reunite. These were the precursors to modern powwow.
Many ceremonies and customs were outlawed during the reservation period. The Grass Dance being more social was one of the only events allowed. As so many Tribes were pushed together it was soon clear and necessary to transfer the traditions of the Grass Dance between Tribes. “InterTribalism” began to emerge with the sharing of songs, dances, clothing, food, and art. Gift giving and generosity became integral aspects of these early festivities and they are still with us today. Over time the phrase “Powwow” as a term for meeting or gathering became popular and has been used widely to describe the cultural event since the mid-20th Century. The word “powwow” began to appear in newspapers in the early twentieth century, advertising “authentic” Indigenous dance shows.
World War I and II brought warrior traditions back to the forefront of powwows, which became a place to celebrate and memorialize American Indian veterans. In the following years, the American Indian veterans’ organizations took an increasing role in organizing the events. Memorial Day powwows became major annual traditions, and veterans continue to be honored and celebrated at powwows.
In the 1950s, a series of Bureau of Indian Affairs programs again relocated thousands of Plains Indians to cities across the country. This mass migration created a proliferation of intertribal collaboration, akin to the intertribal alliances of the late 1800s. American Indians in urban centers created new communities and new spaces where they could connect with one another and their cultures. They founded community centers and organized powwows, sports leagues, and church events.
Many students were forced to attend government and Christian boarding schools with members of enemy tribes or groups they would have never met due to distance. During this forced assimilation, American Indian children who did not have Great Plains powwow dances in their culture learned that style of song and dance from their Great Plains classmates. They adopted the early ideology of what was to become the modern powwow.
By the 1980s the Powwow had become extremely popular and even commercial. In some cases, it became a great show for both the Native and Non-Native crowd. While there had been competition at powwows and competition powwows in the past, the rise of the 1980s brought about better prizes and better organization of the competition powwow. A new evolution could be seen across Indian Country that increased the interest in both the Native American culture and the powwow to both Native and non-Native people. As the 1990s came about, large casinos got in the act of promoting both competition and non-competition powwows to promote not only the most obvious but also the culture of the Tribe that owned or operated the casino.
Finally, by the emergence of the 21st Century more Natives were calling for a return to the old ways and the earliest ways of the gathering. Soon the old terms and old ways started to appear more and more at both competition and non-competition events. To promote and get more interested in the old ways, many big money competition powwows have added new categories of dance and dress that is really the old ways of dance and dress. With this they hope to create a renewed interest of the old ways.
Regardless of the term used to describe it, today’s gathering or powwow bases itself on the fundamental values common to Native Americans across North America: Honor, Respect, Tradition and Generosity. Along with their families, thousands of singers, dancers, and vendors follow the Powwow Trail all over the entire continent to share and celebrate the culture.