A dancer at a Narragansett Tribe powwow. Photo: peppergrasss

Brian Lightfoot Brown: Welcome to the oldest recorded powwow in North America

The Oldest Recorded Powwow In North America

By Brian Lightfoot Brown

Powwow. It's among the most common words associated with Native Americans.

But do you know the origins of the word? “Powwow” is derived from the Narragansett Tribe's word “powwaw," which means “spiritual leader."

It's clear that “powwaw” became “powwow” and the meaning got misinterpreted, likely by non-Natives, to mean a form of gathering, as it is generally known as today.

So with powwow being given to us from the Narragansett (you're welcome, Indian Country), it only seems fitting that the oldest recorded powwow in North America is the annual Narragansett Indian Tribe's August Meeting Powwow in cozy southern New England.

The tribe hosts this annual gathering -- one of 13 thanksgivings observed by the Narragansett people -- during the second weekend of every August on its tiny reservation in Charlestown, Rhode Island. In 2017, this will be the 342nd consecutive recorded powwow.

This dates the "original" powwow back to 1675, although the tribe's August Meetings most certainly predated Europeans in this hemisphere. The 1675 meeting likely served as the place where colonial leaders persuaded the powerful Narragansett people to remain neutral in their military conflict with the Wampanoag. That's why the original powwow was noteworthy to European scribes of the day.

Yet just four months later, the colonial troops ambushed and devastated Narragansett women, children and elders at the Great Swamp. Despite brutal losses to warfare, followed by centuries of disease, slavery and assimilation efforts, surviving Narragansett persevered and continued annually.

Non-Natives were not invited again until the 20th century.

The powwow brings Narragansett families back to their loved ones as they sing, dance and honor what their ancestors passed on to them. I have danced and attended this powwow many times in my lifetime and hope to see this powwow continue and never end.

As this weekend approaches, I hope everyone -- Native and Non-Native alike -- feels compelled to be a part of history by attending the Narragansett Tribe's 342nd Annual August Meeting Powwow. This August 12 and 13, the tradition continues.

Honor our ancestors by keeping this tradition alive. The oldest recorded powwow in North America.


Brian Lightfoot Brown is a citizen of the Narragansett Tribe. This opinion is his own.