HISTORY OF THE “POWWOW”
By Jamie K. Oxendine, Lumbee/Creek
Director, Black Swamp InterTribal Foundation
Before the term “powwow” became popular, various words were used to describe this cultural phenomenon. Some of these included: Celebration, Doing, Fair, Feast, Festival Gathering, Happening, Indian Dance, Rodeo, Show and Union. The term “powwow” is actually a North Eastern Woodland word belonging to the Narragansett Language and the closest English translation is “meeting.”
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 very 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.
The removal period increased the growth of the reservations and this soon gave rise to the modern powwow. This transition for Native Americans often put Tribes at odds with other Tribes they did not know and manyTribes that were bitter enemies found themselves very close neighbors. A compromise and compilation of traditions had to take place in order for the people to survive.
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. “Inter-Tribalism” 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 very popular and has been used widely to describe the cultural event since the mid 20th Century.
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 very old ways of dance and dress. With this they hope to create a re-newel interest of the old ways.
BUT 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.