Courtesy Viki Eagle
Dancers in regalia take to the pow wow grounds at the Oglala Nation Pow Wow in 2014. officially defines a powwow as an event where Native Americans practice "magic." A Pow Wow Is An Event Where Indians Practice 'Magic'

Simon Moya-Smith
3/28/16, a popular website of definitions and synonyms, defines a pow wow as an event where Native Americans — wait for it — practice "magic," ICTMN discovered Monday.

In its official definition, the website writes that a 'powwow' is "[among North American Indians] a ceremony, especially one accompanied by magic, feasting, and dancing, performed for the cure of disease, success in a hunt, etc."

The discovery of the curious definition comes weeks after a heated debate surrounding author J.K. Rowling's latest series, "A History of Magic In North America." In it, fictional Native Americans practice witchcraft and wizardry. Rowling is the author of the widely-successful 'Harry Potter' series.

Image courtesy

RELATED: J.K. Rowling On Native American Wizards - Called Skin Walkers on Pottermore Website

Sarah Ortegon, a jingle dress dancer who is currently studying fancy shawl, told ICTMN Monday that although the beauty of pow wows can "cast a spell" on viewers, it is not magic in its official definition.

Sarah Ortegon, Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho, dances old style jingle at the Denver Indian Center New Years Pow Wow earlier this year. Photo courtesy Hannah Ortegon.

"We do not practice magic while we dance. We use our bodies to tell living stories that have [been] passed on from generation to generation," she wrote in a message. "Although, the ultimate goal of colonialism was to make our way of life disappear, pow wows have only helped keep some of our traditions alive."

Ortegon, who is Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho, said that magic "is the power to perform mysterious tricks. Usually performed as entertainment. For example, making things disappear or appear before your very eyes. [There are] no magic tricks [at pow wows]," she emphasized.

On Monday evening, prominent Native American voices, including Dr. Adrienne Keene of Native Appropriations, and hip-hop artist Frank Waln, were already slamming the website's definition. Other Twitter users also chimed in with their own musings: did not immediately respond to ICTMN's request for comment.

Simon Moya-Smith

Simon Moya-Smith, Oglala Lakota, is the Culture Editor at Indian Country Today. Follow him @Simonmoyasmith.


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alexjacobs's picture
Submitted by alexjacobs on
Pauwau, from Algonquian, is said to mean "he dreams" as in a traditional healer or healing ceremony, in early Massachusetts they outlawed "pawwaws" -- that no Indian shall perform their rituals, any outward worship to their false gods or to the devil -- It went on to refer to any Native council or ceremony. Also -- Caucus, is said to come from the Algonquian, a word for counsel, a talker, an orator, it was picked up as American and spread around the world as a political meeting. Mugwump was also from Algonquian, meaning an important person (kingpin) who maybe would not caucus with regular folks, both entered the American political vernacular, as did pow wow.

bullets's picture
Submitted by bullets on
The word "powwow" came from the Narragansett word, "pawe wa" and English-speaking people began using it in the early 1600s. We haven't been pow-wow-in' for that long, at least, not the way we do it now, eh? The Narragansett word "pawe wa" or "paw wau" was for a healer or a dreamer, a.k.a. a medicine person. But Christians from Europe thought our traditional medicine powers were magic from the devil. Sadly, some Natives think so nowadays, too. (For example: So that's why the definition has that meaning. If you check out the Oxford English Dictionary, it has the same definition, only with dozens of examples of how the word has been used over time. The earliest known use is this one, from the year 1624, written by E. Winslow in "Good Newes from New England." it says this: "The office and dutie of the Powah is to bee exercised principally in calling vpon the Divell, and curing diseases of the sicke or wounded." And here's one from ten years later, in 1634, by W. Wood, who wrote in the "New Englands Prospect" ii. xii. 82, that "Their Pow-wows betaking themselves to their exorcismes and necromanticke charmes." Anyway...what we call a "pow wow" is not the same as what Narragansetts call a "paw wau," or what non-Natives call a "pow wow." It was first used by Narragansetts (and some other Algonquians), then used by colonists. And then later, we began to use it for something else entirely. So...I guess what's most irritating to me is not that they don't know what our pow wows are, but instead, that EuroAmericans have always thought our medicine traditions were somehow "of the devil." That's what upsets me--because we *need* our traditions.

tmsyr11's picture
Submitted by tmsyr11 on
As much as the writer is trying to instigate his racially motivated views, "magic" (it seems) is a term/phrase being used to describe what really isn't understood (by the outside). Maybe a Columbia Univ graduate? I do know from observance that when an eagle feather drops on dance floor, it seems the commotion and activities seem to stop or slow down. Obviously somebody who has been around the pow-wow can better explain the event. But to an outsider, its as though everybody is waiting on "something" to occur. The observance of the feather is simply a sign of "respect" "courtesy" "acknowledgement" of something MORE, something GREATER than our own existence. If this "magic" of taking time out, then so be it!

tmsyr11's picture
Submitted by tmsyr11 on
If this was a group of white people carrying out a Pow-wow, then it wouldn't be 'magic' being practiced, but according to to most, it would be an "insult" "insensitive", etc. Could white people simply be trying to perform "magic"?