The Grammarphobia Blog

It’s powwow time

Q: I assume “powwow” comes from a Native American language, but how did this word spread to all parts of the country when the indigenous peoples spoke so many different languages?

A: You’re right in thinking that “powwow” was an indigenous American word. You’re also right in suspecting that it wasn’t originally used throughout the continent, since Native American tribes did speak many different languages.

The word came into English in the early 17th century from Narragansett, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. This was one of the Eastern Algonquian languages spoken in the coastal Northeast.

To the Narragansetts, who were indigenous to what is now Rhode Island, the word “powwow” meant a priest—that is, a shaman or healer. The word was also known among the Massachusett Indians.

The meaning in reconstructed proto-Algonquian, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), was “one who has visions.”

Native American languages were not written until the advent of Europeans, so “powwow” was first recorded in the 1620s by English colonists who spelled it a variety of ways (“powah,” “powaw,” “pawawe,” etc.).

In the 1630s another meaning of the word was recorded in English, and it’s the principal meaning today. Here’s the OED’s definition: “A religious or magical ceremony (especially one with feasting),” as well as “a council or conference of North American Indians.”

This ceremonial sense of “powwow” apparently originated in English, not in Narragansett, which had other words for “meeting” (miâawene), “religious feast” (nákommit), “feast” or “dance” (nickómmo), and “solemn public meeting” (esaqúnnamun), according to colonial-era glossaries.

As American Heritage explains, the new usage evolved “because of the important role played by the healer or holy person in these events.”

“Today, when speaking in English, some Native American communities themselves use the word powwow to refer to meetings or gatherings held according to the traditional ways of their people,” the dictionary adds.

So how did “powwow” spread from New England to tribes across the continent? Our guess is that the Narragansetts themselves had something to do with it.

Notable as traders and importers of goods from other tribes, the Narragansetts were also trading with the British and Dutch at least as far back as 1623, according to Barry M. Pritzker, in A Native American Encyclopedia: History, Culture, and Peoples (2000).

The British recorded the word the following year, in 1624 (we’ll get to its use in English later). But it’s reasonable to assume that “powwow” spread first from the Narragansetts to neighboring tribes and later to distant ones.

As Pritzker notes, for most of the 17th century the Narragansetts were the dominant tribe in New England. In the mid-1670s, after what is known as King Philip’s War, many Narragansetts were dispersed among other tribes, and some ended up as far west as Wisconsin. No doubt they took their words along with them.

“By 1880, at least thirty tribes were organizing public-invited gatherings, increasingly referred to as ‘powwows,’ ” Craig Harris writes in Heartbeat, Warble, and the Electric Powwow (2016), a book about American Indian music.

But it’s likely that European settlers and traders who had picked up the word also helped spread it as they traveled across the continent. OED citations show that the use of “powwow,” in both of its senses, was widespread in the 18th and 19th centuries.

One white settler in particular helped to popularize “powwow” and to preserve many other Narragansett words—Roger Williams, the founder of Providence Plantation, an English settlement that welcomed religious dissenters.

It was the Narragansetts, then a powerful and influential tribe, who sold land to Williams in 1636 for the settlement.

Williams was not only a clergyman and a statesman but also a language scholar, and he’s responsible for much of what we know of the Narragansett and other Algonquian languages in colonial times.

He said that his book A Key Into the Language of America (1643), a study of the grammar, syntax, and vocabulary of the native people, was “framed chiefly after the Narrogánset Dialect, because most spoken in the Countrey.”

But even before Williams arrived on the scene, “powwow” had entered English.

When first recorded in English in the 1620s (spelled “powah”), the word meant “a priest, shaman, or healer,” according to the OED.  This is also what it meant to the Narragansetts. In his book, Williams spelled the word powwaw (plural powwaûog) and said that to native speakers it meant “priest.”

Here is Oxford’s earliest citation in English writing:

“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.” (From Good Newes from New-England, 1624, by Edward Winslow, who acted as the Pilgrims’ primary negotiator with New England Algonquians, including the Wampanoag, Massachusett, and Narragansett tribes.)

In the following decade the ceremonial meaning of “powwow” came into English. The earliest example we’ve found is from “A Discourse About Civil Government,” a tract written sometime in 1638 or ’39 by the clergyman John Davenport:

“These very Indians that worship the Devil, will not be under the government of any Sagamores [chiefs] but such as join with them in the observance of their pawawes and idolatries.”

(The OED quotes part of this passage, but gives an imprecise date, 1663, and an incorrect author, John Cotton. In his 1702 biography of Davenport, Cotton Mather credits the tract to Davenport and says the name “Cotton” was substituted for “Davenport” on the printed tract “by a mistake.” An 1839 commentary by Leonard Bacon demonstrates convincingly that the tract was written “sometime between April 15th, 1638, and June 4th, 1639.” The tract was published in 1663, but the title page notes: “Written many Years since … And now Published.”)

The modern spelling of the word as “powwow” (often hyphenated, “pow-wow”) was recorded as early as 1634, according to OED citations, though the spelling fluctuated for a couple of centuries until that became the standard.

A third, and more general, meaning of the word emerged in the early 19th century, defined in the OED as “a meeting, a conference, esp. of powerful people; (also) bustle, activity.”

The dictionary describes this usage as “colloquial” and says it first appeared in the US: “The Warriors of the Democratic Tribe will hold a powow at Agawam on Tuesday.” (From the June 5, 1812, issue of the Salem Gazette in Massachusetts.)

We still use “powwow” this way, as in this more contemporary example from the OED: “A family pow-wow after lunch decided that the afternoon should be spent on a secluded beach.” (From a 1987 issue of the Sunday Express Magazine, London.)

Among Native Americans today, “powwow” usually means a festive get-together celebrating Indian culture, and less commonly a medicine man or woman. Pritzker’s Native American Encyclopedia defines it this way:

“Powwow: Commonly used to describe a gathering at which native people dance, sing, tell stories, and exchange goods, the term also refers (in a mainly Algonquian context) to a healer or a healing ceremony.”

Today the Narragansett language has died out, though revival efforts are under way. Meanwhile, “powwow” has lived on in other Native American languages as well as in English.

The Narragansetts have lived on too. Today, as Capers Jones writes in The History and Future of Narragansett Bay (2006), their yearly powwow is “perhaps the most long-lived Indian meeting on the North American continent.” The tribe’s 341st annual powwow was held in Charleston, RI, last August.

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