History of the Powwow | Origin & Background | Native American

History of the Powwow | Origin & Background | Native American

Posted By Jamie K Oxendine October 30th, 2011 Last Updated on: February 27th, 2020

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.

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).

22 thoughts on “History of the Powwow | Origin & Background | Native American

  1. Rita Leos says:

    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!!

  2. Berlie Barnhill says:

    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?

  3. Caminadno Cuervo the Good Hunter says:

    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

  4. Hans Beks says:

    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]

  5. Molly LaBadie says:

    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.

  6. Alyssandra Schwind says:


    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.

  7. Alyssa Harford says:

    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.

  8. Victoria Reamer says:

    I really like how the powwow developed as something of an adaptation technique for tribes in close proximity to learn to get along together

    Very interesting!

  9. Douglas Spirit Bear Neely says:

    I found this writing very interesting, the chronological record of the Gathering, Festivals, and etc. Known by many names by many Nations, it all came down basically the same thing. It’s a way for the different Nations to preserve and share their traditions both with each other and with non-Natives alike! They have as with any culture evolved over the years as more Nations have seen the need to preserve their traditions, culture, and storytelling. I find it distressing however that some of these Festivals are run as a money maker and they are not necessarily a form of keeping their traditions alive and passing them down to the next generation.

  10. Gary Jeffrey III says:

    I first want to express that it’s saddening to hear of the struggles that Natives underwent to be able to freely express and enjoy themselves. But I relish in the fact of knowing that the basis of the powwow are honor, respect, tradition, and generosity. An in depth look at the history of the powwow would be an interesting read!

  11. Nate Zona says:

    That is interesting, I have heard the word “powwow” before, but I never knew what it actually meant. It really is terrible the way native life was so heavily legislated by the United States, but thankfully the Native American Religious Freedom Act exists today!

  12. Alvelia Farmer says:

    It’s always good to be able to put aside differences and come together and just have a good time! I enjoyed reading this article because it was not only informative but an actual interesting read. Hopefully, i’ll be able to attend one of these powwows one day.

  13. Mark Chase says:

    This posting was a good read. What puzzles me is the fact that the U. S. government dictated what the tribes could and could not practice regarding their customs and beliefs. If the reservations were really set aside for the native peoples, why wouldn’t the tribes have complete autonomy in deciding what to practice instead of being told what to do by a government that didn’t work for them at that time?

    • Mishiikenh Ishkwebiidwewiidam says:

      Native Americans had a bounties on their heads and were persecuted for practicing their cultural norms in the not so distant past. The “pow wow’ is not actually a cultural norm, it was the only thing that what was allowed during the time our ways of life were outlawed. Dictated by settler law, Native American’s were dressed the way the settler law made them dress and only allowed them to dance the way they would allow them to dance, in a staged performance type atmosphere and venue. The “pow wow’ is actually one of the first westernized phenoms of the last century born out of the oppressive dictation of a ruthless government and policy. Nothing natural or cultural with regards to “pow wow”.

  14. Noah York says:

    It saddens me that many Native American Tribes were forbidden to practice their ceremonies and customs. Additionally, I find it so disturbing that enemy tribes were almost forced, out of necessity, to combine beliefs and compromise their rituals and ways of living.

  15. Lee Slusher says:

    It is interesting to read about the PowWows trying to bring back the old ways by bringing in rewards and big prizes. I hope it works and would help create a variety more in Pow Wow events.

  16. Beth Reitmire says:

    Interesting and informative. I have heard people before get offended when their “gathering” was referred to as a “powwow”. Thanks for sharing this!

  17. Tom Iron Eagle says:

    This is great and perfect for a short program or handout or start for a more detailed paper, thesis, dissertation or book. Thanks Mr. Jamie.

  18. Rebecca Hunt Locklear says:

    Fine writing. Yes it is short but this is good for teachers and students and a beginning for them to do more research on the “powwow.”

  19. lloyd top sky says:

    the history of the powwow in a contempory sense can be easily agreed to , with some discussion as where did you reference your info ! I’ve read similiar writing from hobbbyists who have cultural interests in ‘ Nativism ‘ but lack the ‘ tribalism ‘ that energiez the interest in N.A. culture hense, the actual focus of the foundation of the ‘Grass Dance Circle ‘ becomes unbalanced in the history approach as to clearly present that info accurately because ..the original dance was a ceremony that commemori-
    ated the warrior , loved ones , and the celebration of life .therefore when refering the former as a GATHERING , does hardly become the history of the Grass Dance 9 becuse they’re still some tribes that practice the original ways ).
    In conclusion , ther is way more to be presented as the ‘ history ‘ but due to the space and time in the subject we must briefly set the record straight in the ‘ Circle of the Nimitowin ‘ …thank you

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