Powwows: An Ancient Tradition Still Thrives Today

Powwows are not only a symbol of cultural survival for the more than 700 tribes in North America, they are a symbol of them thriving in the 21st century. Today there are hundreds of powwows in North America, in every state in the United States and every province in Canada. They have become a tradition that celebrates Native traditions and galvanizes Native culture for future generations.

The word “powwow” (also spelled pow wow and pow-wow) comes from the Narragansett Indians, an Algonquian tribe that lived in present-day Rhode Island, and several of their words, which are all similar: powwaw, powaw, pawaw, powah. The words meaning “spiritual leader” or “meeting” or, perhaps, “a meeting led by a spiritual leader.” The words describing tribal gatherings which a chief, leader, or shaman led involved dancing, regalia, and religious rituals. The term began to be used by early Colonists in New England who traded and co-existed with the Indians. The word was then adapted more widely and moved west.


The earliest white reference to Native American “powwows” was a 1590 watercolor by John White of ritual dancing by the Algonquin people of early Virginia. The tribe held this event with dancing to ensure agricultural fertility for their crops.

Most indigenous tribes across North America from present-day Canada to as far south as Mexico practiced ritual dancing and wore special regalia for various religious and cultural purposes. Dances were usually associated with one of four occasions: religious ceremonies, homecoming celebrations honoring successful war parties, celebrations of new or reaffirmed alliances, and events honoring various warrior societies or extended family groups. Perhaps one major difference between ancient and modern powwows is that modern events are intertribal and inclusive—they are open to all who wish to attend, whereas pre-contact events allowed only tribal members and those from friendly allies. tribes on the dance grounds.


The modern powwows of today resemble most closely the warrior societies of the Great Plains in the 1800s. But as white expansion and the Indian Wars began to wipe out native populations and cultural practices many tribes were forced onto reservations, powwows, and tribal dancing, wearing of war or ritualistic regalia, and practicing tribal traditions became prohibited. In fact, many dances, such as the Ghost Dance, were regarded as inciting rebellion and war, as well as promoting the “pagan” religion of Native Americans.

The U.S. Army was employed to prohibit tribes from practicing their ritual dancing using force. The massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890 took place when Sioux Indians at the Pine Ridge Reservation were dancing the Ghost Dance when the soldiers opened fire on the Sioux, indiscriminately massacring hundreds of men, women, and children.

Even well into the 1900s, the U.S. government prohibited Native tribes from holding powwows. In 1923, Charles Burke, Commissioner of Indian Affairs in the United States, passed that limited the times of the year in which Native Americans could practice traditional dance, which he deemed as directly threatening the Christian religion. However, many Native communities gathered in secret to practice their cultures’ dance and music, in defiance of such laws.

Ironically, the popularity of powwows grew substantially after World War I and World War II. The participation of Native Americans in America’s foreign wars has been the highest per capita of any ethnic group in the U.S. and Native veterans were celebrated among their tribes with a revival of homecoming dances and powwows.

By the mid-nineteenth century, pow-wows were being held across the West, Great Plains, and in the Great Lakes region. The practice continued to grow among tribes across the country.

During the 1960s, during the emergence of civil rights and a rebirth of tribal heritage, powwows became a ritual full of powerful symbolism and tribal pride.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Indian casinos began to inject their support and sponsored powwow events. That resulted in an intensification of competition and in the formation of a “powwow circuit” with dancers, musicians, artists, and vendors traveling to competitive events that are scheduled a year or more in advance.

Today the powwow is not only an affirmation of surviving Native cultures, but proof of its resiliency and evolution into the 21st century.


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