History of the Powwow | Origin & Background | Native American

Posted By Jamie K Oxendine October 30th, 2011 Last Updated on: April 4th, 2022

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 many tribes 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.

May 20-21, 2017 – Winnipeg, Manitoba

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.

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About Jamie K Oxendine

Jamie K. Oxendine, of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, is the Native American Liaison and Education Consultant for Ohio University in Athens. Ohio. He is also an adjunct professor at the University of Toledo teaching “Indians of North America” and at Lourdes University teaching “Native American Culture” for the Lifelong Learning Center. A frequent speaker on Native American topics, he serves as the director of the Black Swamp InterTribal Foundation in Ohio. As a recording artist, he was three times been nominated for a NAMMY (Native American Music Award).

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Just wanted you to know, Powwow is not a Narragansett word meaning meeting. The actual word is powwáw in Narragansett but is also spelled pauwau and used by many eastern Algonquian tribal communities. It is our term for a medicine person. That’s well documented. Because our powwáw led ceremonies, that word was misinterpreted as the gathering they were presiding over. That’s how it became synonymous with tribal gatherings/ceremonies and carried westward to other native communities.
Just wanted to clarify.
I’m a Narragansett woman and a cultural educator. You can look this all up, it’s well documented. Roger Williams wrote a book called “A Key Into the Language of America” documenting Narragansett language. There’s also a Natick dictionary you find online that has various Algonquian dialects. They all say the same thing.
Hope this is helpful!


i love pow wow

Rita Leos

Question: my mother as a child at Indian School in Santa Fe, New Mexico. For longest time , she sought to find the song/dance that the older girls chanted in secret or out in fields. This chant was not allowed in school. My would hume it so all she and I knew. But we never cold fine it. I am thinking it was the Grass Dance, is thee a recording of it. I would love to hear/ or see it!!

[…] 2020 has certainly complicated, if not completely scuttled, social events like festivals and powwows, there are still numerous resources for those looking to learn more about contemporary Native […]

Berlie Barnhill

This is good but can you tell me when the first pow wow was in the south (Lumbee Tribe)? I have heard many things. Also when the Lumbee Tribe first played stickball?

Caminadno Cuervo the Good Hunter

I am not trying to open old wounds because obvioulsy I would grevioulsy affected however it is not supersizing how many different ceremonies and rites have been band over the course of history in dealing with the US government

Hans Beks

Dear all,
I am Deacon in the Catholic church and I’m looking for prayer beads used in different religions or still in use.
By Native Americans |I have never read anything about prayer beads. Therefore I want to ask you are prayer beads in use or where prayer beads in used by native Americans, and when this is is it possible to let me know how I can get this over

Hans Beks
[email protected]

Molly LaBadie

The Powwow Trail was something I was not familiar with. Being able to travel along year round and participate in the multiple Powwows must be an amazing experience.

Alyssandra Schwind


This was a very interesting post! If you would have asked me if I knew anything about a powwow prior to this my only answer would say it is a gathering. It is honestly sad that that would be all I could tell you about it. This was full of interesting facts and points that I really enjoyed reading. Now if you ask me about a powwow and talk a little about it I can definitely go in detail about them.

Alyssa Harford

Isn’t it funny how survival and war can unite even the worst rivals and enemies. Also, it is ironic that as traditions develop over time they tend to lose focus on the original purpose. America culture tends to find a way to commercialize any and everything.

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