Dictionary.com to stop saying pow wows where Native Americans practice “magic”

As an English word, pow-wow has also never been about magic - it’s about having a gathering or meeting, generally between different tribes, or at least distant groups. There might be storytelling or dancing, but it’s not magic. (At the annual Stanford University pow-wow, there’s lots of dancing, from lots of different tribes. And lots of eating.)

There are some Native American tribes that do things that might count as “magic” rather than just religion - shamanic ceremonies for healing or insight, or the parts of peyote rituals that weren’t made up by Carlos Castenada, for instance - but they’re generally things you’d do within your own group, not at a pow-wow.


Don’t diss what you don’t understand.

Learn from it.

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Well it does reflect the history, it is the current usage which it doesn’t represent.

If you look at the etymology of the word it is all about divination, shamanism and such. It wasn’t used in its more common today meaning until the 19th century, and until then the meaning included shamanistic rituals which to the superstitious people of those times included magic.

To be fair I was being more than a little cheeky using the term colonialism there, and I shouldn’t have been. Though I still believe this is an English word to describe an English understanding of things. Also the use of the word magic there, I felt was more the magic of Spring than Harry Potter magic. YMMV.

Really? Because even on the dictionary.com pages brief etymology they state that the words first use "Sense of “council, conference, meeting” is first recorded 1812, while “Meaning “magical ceremony among North American Indians” is recorded from 1660s.”

That is at least one source which disagrees with you

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There’s a definition, then there’s an etymology. The definition indicates usage. Etymology, history. Adding a note on archaisms is fine for a formal dictionary, though dictionary.com’s not the OED or an academic resource, it’s a contemporary dictionary (and usually a crap one I skip, FWIW).

I was previously unaware, that’s an interesting fact that would make sense to be included in the etymology, rather than in the first given definition where it’s simply incorrect:

Why on Earth are you hanging your hat on something as dense as defending this tripe?

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I don’t know, I love words and lexicography. I guess I want definitions to be added not removed. As I noted in my first answer, if I was in charge I would leave the “new” definition in number one spot and add a 5th with a historically notation


When I look the etymology, I get:
early 17th century: from Narragansett powáw ‘magician’ (literally ‘he dreams’).
So, yes, eastern Algonquian. Which is a quite different culture than that of the western tribes like the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho.


I have a copy of the Shorter OED, it’s really cool, there’s a place for exhaustively dealing with the shades of meanings of words and their etymology and history of use, though a web site that is mostly built out of an early domain name grab and an OCR of an out of copyright version of the Random House dictionary and sadly became the dictionary-lite of the internet is not really that place. dictionary.com’s entry for powwow has an etymology section and as it turns out even has the older usage and examples (just checked). They also still haven’t updated definition 1, FWIW.

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I’ve added a 1913 Webster’s to my Apple’s dictionary on boingboing’s reccomendation

And the offending definition appears.

Because I know it’s from 1913, I can just say

and move on. But Dictionary.com just wants free content, so maybe it doesn’t make that clear.

It could be worse


So, do you have a strong reaction for or against definitions of “pow wow” as including magic? And why?

The folks being depicted by the word are offended by its inclusion, and…

I practice magic. Pow wows are extremely beautiful, and entertaining, as the quoted guy in the post says – that aint magic!


That’s a huge generalisation, and it certainly does not apply to me.

In what sense?

That’s not what I read, he said that there aren’t magic tricks, specifically connoting illusionism. If people want to argue for or against the equivalence, it seems relevant to consider that there are generally more disparate definitions of “magic” than there are for “pow wow”. I hate the term magic because its ambiguity makes it superfluous. Since people tend to mean either illusions or sorcery, IMO it would be far better to simply use one of those words and retire “magic”. But one of the two common meanings certainly applies, and it seems odd that some people would rather resort to knee-jerk reactions rather than simply acknowledge that magic itself has multiple meanings.

I am an indigenous person, and I have been to a few pow wows. It might seem cynical of me, but this business sounds more to me like natives white-washing their own culture for the sake of popular acceptance. YMMV.

a. The art or practice of using charms, spells, or rituals to attempt to produce supernatural effects or control events in nature.
b. The charms, spells, and rituals so used.
2. The exercise of sleight of hand or conjuring, as in making something seem to disappear, for entertainment.
3. A mysterious quality of enchantment

From dictionary.com again, FWIW. The article seems to be entirely stressing the second definition, which I would agree is not applicable. But the first certainly applies, and the third is spot-on. Enchantment literally means to sing (chant) a reality into being, which is basically the whole point of the kinds of performances being discussed here.

Maybe the squeaky wheel should get the oil simply to make a few people happy, but it doesn’t seem like a cogent argument to me. And I say this as an advocate of indigenous culture.

That kind.

And to throw yet another layer of confusion on it, the term ‘pow-wow’ got some usage among the Pennsylvania Dutch and other folk of the upper Appalachians to denote a type of ritual that would bring luck, healing or other desired result by what might be considered magickal means. I don’t know the etymology, however.


I’ve no idea about the American situation, but in my local context: my Mum’s husband (a sociologist) has spent the last thirty years working in Aboriginal health and education.

According to him (and he’s backed up by the health/wealth/education stats), the situation had become substantially worse over the last few decades.


I’m very much on board with the notion of ‘let’s try no luridly exoticizing those freaky others for a change’; but I have to wonder, given the wildly common occurrence of (attempted, I’ve yet to see anyone actually pull it off) practice of magic among people, whether we’d be better off saying that they don’t “practice magic” or admitting that, in fact, a variety of widely respected and accepted practices that we engage in without comment are “practicing magic” by any reasonable standard.


I think a key part of the problem is that when white Westerners do it, it’s “religion” and “miracles”; when colonised people do it, it’s “magic” and “superstition”.


Ha, I was just gonna say, I wonder if all of those who ridicule this American Indian request would be fine with describing various Christian rituals as “magic.”


I’ve been to a couple and I think they were great for everyone involved. It is an opportunity to keep old traditions alive. The tribe I belong to has a “Family Reunion” every year. It is nearly a week long event where people from around the nation come to the Reservation to learn about history, the new community programs, etc. There are art shows, trips to an eagle sanctuary, tours of the museum, lots of food, craft fair, stuff for the kids to do, etc.

It climaxes a the Powwow with various traditional dances and dresses (some of them not really THAT old of traditions, like the jingle dresses). Some were in ceremonial regalia, and a few had a very authentic living history type attire. Everyone was encouraged to participate in some of the dances like the Snake and Buffalo dance. They even had a real life princess, though she was of a different tribe.

Like anything, different people take and leave different things from the event. I would hope most feel enriched some how. At any rate, I think it is important to keep heritage and traditions alive.


Sorry if I missed it above, but what do you think about the request from other American Indians that the word magic not be used to describe Powwow/pow wow activities?

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