Origins of Powwow

November 19, 2019 3 min read

Origins of Powwow

Native American rituals, commonly referred to as powwows, have evolved from a past formal ceremony to a current combination of dance, family reunion, and festival. Powwows are renowned for their pageantry of colors and dance that has been adapted and turned into a vibrant, quick and thrilling experience for Native Americans and tourists alike since their beginnings.

Today, powwows are conducted across the continent of North America, from small towns like White Eagle, Oklahoma to some of the biggest, such as Los Angeles, California. From cow pastures to convention centers, they can take place anywhere and take place throughout the year. Such gatherings last only one weekend, but usually from hundreds and even thousands of miles away attract Native Americans and tourists.

There’s a reason for driving hours, a reason you’re struggling with; what you feel and believe. Many come to “contest” these celebrations, many come to sing songs, some come to see friends and relatives, and some come to the atmosphere. A powwow makes people feel good, a mental and physical sensation. For this reason, powwows spread rapidly across the plains and are now seen as one of the Native Americans ‘ main cultural activities.

The powwow is the way that the Native American gets together to dance, sing, play, renew old friendships and make new ones. This is a time for renewing an old-fashioned thought and reserving a rich heritage. As early as 1804, the Poncas were the first to practice this ceremony, called the Hethuska. They passed the Hethuska to the Kaw, and gave the Osage the dance, which called it “Inlonschka.” Then the Omaha adopted the practice and extended it north to the Lakota (Sioux) tribe, which in the late 1890s popularized it on reservations.

Dances have always been the Native American’s important part of life. Dance styles and material have changed over the years, but their sense and importance have not changed. There is a belief held by some in the Native American community that they were also forced to have dances for the public to come and see when they were forced into reservations. They were led through the city in a procession before every dance. According to some, this was the start of the modern powwow.

Powwow singers in the Native American culture are also very important figures. There wouldn’t be any fun without them. The compositions, from religious to war to cultural, are of many varieties. They would perform their songs as different tribes came together, often switching the songs so that singers from different tribes could take part. Having “vocables” to replace the words of the old songs came with these changes. So some of today’s songs are sung without words in “vocables.” Yet those who know the music still have a special meaning. We are reminders of their old ways and rich heritage for Native Americans.

Many powwows were “inter-tribal” in the 1920s, meaning they were available to all tribes to join, and the “contesting” tradition began.

Contesting requires dance competitions that can last throughout the weekend, given how often dancers perform and how well they can dance. The prizes can go up to thousands of dollars.

The Second World War brought a return to the world of powwow. Powwows have evolved ever since, constantly changing and adapting to modern ways while retaining their cultural roots. From passaging time, brighter shades, more movements, and even a new style of dance appeared. The Native American culture under a museum’s glass is not dead and set. Rather, it is a living community that preserves its history and pushes forward with the times.


Written by James Miranda

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