You Wanted to Know: What is a Pow Wow?

Question: “What does the term ‘pow wow’ mean?”

Excerpt (Anton Truer): Pow wows are primarily dance events, where people wear sometimes elaborate beadwork, feathers, and other regalia and dance to a wide array of songs performed by numerous drum groups, each comprised of anywhere from five to twenty singers. The powwow is a relatively new cultural form, although one of the most vibrant in all of Indian country.

A misconception of non-Natives is that pow wows are spiritual and ceremonial practices. This has its roots in history. Some say the term “pow wow” was first used by an Englishman (Powah related to healing) and later powwow (related to council meetings). Others say the Algonquian first referred to a pau-wau as a gathering of medicine men for curing. The Narragansett also referred to their shaman as powwaw. Dictionaries continue to define pow wows as ceremonies and councils, and in colloquial terms, people say “let’s have a pow wow” meaning let’s meet. In pow wow promotions, some events such as the Gallup Intertribal Ceremonial Pow Wow even mention “ceremonial dances.” Although all would agree that dancing can be healing, this should not be confused with sacred ceremonial practices.

Today, a pow wow is simply a cultural event and joyful gathering, large and small… where young and old alike can participate… where there is something for everyone in the family… where tribal members can be in touch with members of other tribes. Some pow wows have run for decades. Please read our earlier topic on some of the larger, well known pow wows and other events that are open to the public. If you are thinking of attending a pow wow, please read our blog post on reservation etiquette.

** This is the second part of our seven-part Q&A series called You Wanted to Know. It is based on the book by Anton Truer titled Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask. The excerpts we use from the book are published here with permission. They are partial in nature and do not represent Anton’s complete answer to the question.

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