© Howard Terpning Courtesy of The Greenwich Workshop, Inc.
Blessing from the Medicine Man by Howard Terpning, from the traveling exhibit Native Voices: Native People’s Concepts of Health.

A Party By Any Other Name…The origin of “Pow wow” and its many variations

Tara Houska

Pow-wow. Powwow. Pau wau. Pauau.  powwow…  Which is correct? Or, a better question: Are any of them wrong?

Like the English language, it appears the term is malleable and accommodates many individual preferences.

According to the Harcourt Brace dictionary, the term “powwow” comes from the Algonquian word “pau wau” or “pauau,” which translate to “he dreams.” Before today’s Grand Entries and large-scale gatherings, a Powwow was a medicine man who learned his skills from dreams.

Today, powwows can be both massive contest events featuring intertribal dancers, or local, community-oriented events that tend to focus more on the tribe’s individual customs.

Not all tribes pow wow, but it can be safely said virtually every Native knows what that term means. Whether it’s grass-dancing, watching from the sidelines, or visiting and perusing crafts for sale.

As with so many other aspects of Native culture, the word has unfortunately been casually appropriated with little regard to its history or significance.

In 1646, the Massachusetts General Court set forth a decree that would be reflected in numerous policies criminalizing the practice of Native American religion; “no Indian shall at any time pawwaw, or perform outward worship to their false gods, or to the devil…”

Just last week, The Hill, a legislative publication read regularly by the many Native Americans working in the federal policy arena, blared “Divided GOP to powwow on budget.” In the District of Columbia, home of a football team with a Native racial slur for its name, a news outlet that often publishes Native American legislation and hearings reduced a once-criminal cultural event to a meeting of politicians.

For Native America, there may not be a consensus on “pow wow,” but it is a term that belongs to us. Happy dancing, folks.


Also see – “History of the ‘Duck and Dive”

This article is reprinted from our latest ICTMN Pow Wow Magazine. Read and download ICTMN’s Spring #PowWow Issue here – https://goo.gl/kkg4rX.

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