What is a pow wow?


Last Updated: 5 years

Pow Wow is a gathering where Native American dancing, singing and celebration take place. There are dozens of different pow wows that take place throughout the country in all seasons of the year, but the most popular pow wow season is summer in the Northern US and winter in the Southern states.

Origin of the word pow wow, also spelled powwow

Some reports say that the word pow wow has its origin from the Pawnee word pa-wa, meaning “to eat.”

Other sources say the word is of Algonquin origin and was originally pronounced pauau, which originally referred to the medicine man or spiritual leader conducting the ceremony, but was mistaken by Europeans to indicate the complete  gathering of people for purpose of celebration or an important event.

Because dancing is an integral part of any celebration, it was later taken to mean the dance or all of the parts included in a gathering or celebration. In any case, it is a special time for people to gather and celebrate, meet old friends and create new friendships.

In early times, hunters would invite their friends and relatives to share their good fortune.

As time went on, while the meal was being prepared, relatives would dance to honor their host. Eventually, the dancing became the main focus of the event.

Participants began to use this time to display their weaving, quill work and other finery.

Pow wows also have religious and ceremonial significance.

They are an opportunity for families to hold naming and honoring ceremonies. They are gatherings where Indian people can share part of their tribal traditions and culture. But they should not be confused with other tribal customs and ceremonies that are not performed or shared in public gatherings.

Pow wows have changed over the years.

Today, pow wows or celebrations are still very much part of the lives of many Native Americans. In the Northern Area, the pow wow season can begin as early as March and run through September, but the biggest months for pow wows are July and August.

In the Southern states, pow wow season runs from October to April, with the most popular months being December and January. Pow wow celebrations take place somewhere in the United States and Canada every weekend throughout the year.

Most tribes have an annual or semi-annual pow wow gathering that is open to the public, along with special honoring pow wows to honor a specific event or person, or as a charity event to raise funds for a special project or a needy family after some sort of personal disaster.

Many families pack up and go on “the circuit,” camping out and enjoying the celebration activities, singing, dancing and seeing friends they may not have seen since the previous season, then following the circuit or “pow wow trail” to the next closest or favorite pow wow for the whole summer season, competing for prize money in the dances.

In some states, such as Montana, where there are a lot of pow wows held at the same time, the pow wow circuit is further divided into the High Line and the Low Line, referring to the Northern and Southern portions of the state, respectively.

The top dancers can make a living for their family in this way, while enjoying the activities and  keeping in touch with distant relatives and old friends.

A pow wow may have dancing and singing contests, “give aways,” encampments, feasting and other cultural activities. In present times, activities such as handgames (stick games), horse races, softball tournaments, parades, pow wow princess contests, craft demonstrations, storytelling, fun runs, and other events have been added.

Most religious ceremonies are no longer part of the pow wows. For instance, naming ceremonies are now more often conducted in the privacy of a family; however, some small pow wows do include naming ceremonies.

Honoring ceremonies and ceremonies for a dropped eagle feather remain public today.

Give-away ceremonies are still conducted at pow wows today. A give away may be to dispose of a deceased person’s property, or to honor someone for an accomplishment such as graduation from high school or college, or upon a person joining the military.

Giveaways are also done as a way to say thank you for some service performed for the community, or for some personal kindness received for whatever reason.

At many pow wows, these special ceremonies are done in the day or two before the dancing portion of the pow wow starts, while at other pow wows they are performed during the pow wow between dance sessions.