Deeper Into Jeopardy! IX: Native Americans – $800

Jeopardy! category: THE LAST CENTURY (03-04-2014)

$800 clue: Originally meaning a shaman or medicine man, it now refers to a Native American council or meeting

Correct response

The gist: English, being a language that’s seen much of its development take place in North America, has been the beneficiary of many loanwords coming from Native American languages, many of which have all but lost their pedigree outside of etymology books – see, for example, moose, toboggan, and squash (the food, not the verb or the sport). Many others are commonplace in modern language, but are still strongly associated with their roots – see moccasin, tomahawk, and powwow, the one in question here. I was happy to see that the great majority of the results from a search for “powwow” on Google News were actually about aboriginal ceremonies going on around North America, but the word is ingrained enough that we still see headlines like “States’ Attorneys General to Powwow with Mexican Counterparts.” In such contexts, the word simply means a “meeting of important people,” but does away with the ceremonial connotations it still holds for many Native groups today.
As the clue says, the word originally referred to a holy person, whose presence and rituals were probably what marked the great gatherings that were occurring when white people were coming into contact with the Natives of the Great Lakes area and New England. From there, the word came to be applied to any large ceremonies of Native peoples, regardless of how far removed they were from the Algonquin Indians who supplied the word. Powwows often involved religious rituals, athletic and artistic contests (especially dancing), trading, feasting, and celebrating. The word came into prominent use in the nineteenth century as white people expanded westward, and in particular as the famous traveling shows of the Wild West came into prominence, many of which, such as Wild Bill Hickock (aka Buffalo Bill), employed Natives to put on shows of their costumes and dances (usually exaggerated for the audiences’ sake). The powwow, along with many other native practices (like the potlatch ceremony of the Pacific Northwest), was suppressed by the U.S. and Canadian governments, especially in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, but was revived after World War I when powwows were held to welcome Native soldiers returning from the front. After WWII, powwows changes and grew as many Native peoples were relocated to urban centres, where their disparate cultures mingled and shared with one another. Today, powwows of all sizes are held regularly, and continue to showcase costumes, music, dancing, and other aspects of indigenous North American culture.

Photo of the Grand Entry, the event’s opening ceremony, at the Omaha Pow-wow of 1983

The clue: This one’s basically an etymology clue. The bit about the shaman is certainly interesting but I doubt if it helped anyone give the correct response – powwow is a common enough word, so if you’re aware that it comes from an indigenous American language, that’s basically what you need to know. Given the category, the clue (perhaps with some sensitivity) doesn’t mention the wider use of the word as just a meeting of VIPs.

In Jeopardy!: “Powwow” (or “pow-wow”) appears 14 times in regular clues and once in an FJ! clue in the J!Archive. Almost all of them mention a gathering, feast, conference, or other ceremony. One is a Rhyme Time (a “tribe scribe” takes notes at a powwow) and one asks about a 1984 powwow in honour of Native athlete Jim Thorpe. The remaining two use the word colloquially. The correct response to the FJ! clue is the town of Council Bluffs, Iowa, which was named for a powwow held between the Lewis and Clark Expedition and local tribes in 1804.

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