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Native American Ceremony: The History of the Powwow

The ceremony of the Native American powwow is young in history. That is, it finds its origins in the mid-1800s. Powwow is the Anglicized form of the term pau wau (from the Algonquian peoples who reside in Massachusetts) and has been interpreted in various ways: Either as “he dreams” or as “medicine man”. Both interpretations invoke a sense of spirituality around the powwow. 

The Beginning Of The Modern Powwow

However one defines the term, powwows are a time in which mutual respect and acceptance are shown towards attendees. The first powwows were based around two traditions that spanned across the various tribes: The Drum Religion and Grass Dances. 

The drum holds a special significance in Native American culture. They see the beat of the drum as a representative of the Earth’s heartbeat. In powwows, dancers know which style of dance to perform by listening to the tempo of the drum. 

Grass Dances stem from traditional warrior dances. The origination of such dances is a matter of debate, but the consensus is that they came from tribes in the Northern Plains. In this dance, the individual imitates the way grass dances and sways in the wind. Each footfall blesses the area in which the feasts and events of the powwow take place.

From these two practices, the seeds for the modern concept of the powwow were planted. 

The Ponca Powwow And The Late 1800s

In 1879, the Ponca Powwow took place. People from sixty-seven tribes that inhabited the area that would later become Oklahoma traveled hundreds of miles to attend the event. This powwow is recognized as the first intertribal powwow. 

Towards the end of the 1800s, the American government seized areas of land from both the Northern and Southern Plains. This affected Lakota, Dakota, Blackfoot, Ojibwa, Kiowa, Comanche, Pawnee, and Ponca tribes who were forced to relocate. The migration saw solidarity created amongst the tribes who realized they all are suffering the same fate at the hand of the colonialists.

The powwows were seen as a celebration; a homecoming for those who were kept apart due to governmental separation. As family members reunited, the powwow was a means of reconciliation and joy. 

World War 1 And Its Effect On Powwows

With the outbreak of World War 1, Native Americans fought alongside those of other tribes whom they previously considered enemies. During the war, brotherhood developed between these soldiers and intertribal differences were laid aside as the Native Americans defended America. 

Powwows took on a new significance for Native American war veterans. The powwow was a way to celebrate new alliances as the participants danced with their intertribal comrades. 

The Boarding School’s Effect on Native American Powwow Traditions

It is not mystery of the effects of the Native American Boarding Schools. Native American children were taken from their families and tribes to be relocated into boarding schools. These tribes were under the impression that their children were to be educated and introduced to the European culture and teaching. However, a very different experience has been documented in which they were psychologically, physically, and sexually abused. One of their forms of abuse was denying the Native American children their culture.

This had a direct impact on the ceremonial powwow as the children were prohibited from learning any ceremonial dances like Fancy Shaw or Northern Traditional. Even though children were forced to refrain from engaging in anything that had to do with their culture, children from other tribes had the ability to share with each other, often in private, about their ceremonial dances specific to their tribe. It was through this experience that the children learned dances and songs from those who came from tribes across the United States. 

Urbanization And The Spread Of The Powwow

The 1950s saw urbanization take place. Native Americans had to leave their reservations and relocate to cities for employment and an increase in quality of life. This migration caused the Native American culture to reach other people from different cultures. Traditions, Native American art, jewelry, and lore were shared with all different nationalities.

The powwow was a way in which urbanized Native Americans could rediscover their roots and identity. It was a time of mutual reconnection with their past, as participants had the opportunity to partake in intertribal dances.

Since the 1950s, the powwow circle has expanded. Throughout Alaska and America wherever there are Native Americans there are powwows. Many follow the powwow circuit attending every event throughout the year.  Together they unite to dance in prayer.

Modern-day powwows contain a competitive element in which tribe members create or develop their regalia based on ancestry, tribe, style of dance and honor. Many Powwow dancers display their heritage, eagle feathers, and ancestry in their regalia. They then adorn their regalia and dance competitively for honor as each style of dance must be taught and perfected by Elders whom have danced before them. As many Native Americans gather at these powwows, culture, songs, and traditions are shared with each other.

The Power of Powwow Gatherings  

Powwows are a time of celebration, prayer, unity, acceptance, and mutual understanding. They are often a celebration of culture and love for the Creator and Mother Earth. Intertribal differences are laid aside as Native Americans connect with each other and share traditions. It allows them to rediscover their identity and embrace it with honor. American

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