Thursday, March 19, 2009

Definition of Powwow

Hello again!

Two weeks ago I promised to give you the literal meaning of powwow. There have been some interesting opinions, but in fact, it's a Narragansett word meaning "he dreams" or "dreamer". In parts of New England and as far south as Virginia, some languages use the spelling pauwau. The New Jersey city of Mahwah, usually translated as "meeting place", takes its name from the same root.

Centuries ago, people who had dreams that might be important visions went to elders to have the dream interpreted. This review session evolved into an annual or semi-annual group event. As people were waiting to have their dreams interpreted, they had to eat. As long as people were gathered together, might as well get some trading done. And while the elders heard the dreams and visions out of sight of the crowd, this was also an opportunity to conduct ceremonial and healing dances.

Some say the term dreamer refers equally to the person having the vision, and to the person interpreting it, and so another reasonable definition is "a gathering of spiritual leaders and/or spiritual seekers." One anonymous reader suggested "gathering of spirits," which isn't far off.

While our Cherokee ancestors traditionally held six annual public ceremonies, these were not powwows. It has been suggested that the Stomp Dance is predecessor to the powwow, but that's quite a stretch. So no, there is no Cherokee word for powwow.

What we call a powwow today developed at the beginning of the 20th century, and really took hold in the 1950's. After the misunderstanding of the Ghost Dance that led to the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890, Indians were forbidden to gather to dance and sing... except to educate or entertain white people. What evolved was a combination of elements drawn from genuine tradition, circus, traveling carnivals, minstrel shows, and the famed Wild West shows. Indians both pandered to and lampooned white pre-conceptions.

Today, powwows can be roughly divided into traditional gatherings, which may even avoid the use of the word powwow, and competition powwows, which are centered on dance competitions, often for cash prizes. If you see dance outfits made of day-glo yarn and lamee cloth, good chance you're not at a traditional event!

Brian Wilkes

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