Almost everyone has heard or knows about Pocahontas, the famous daughter of the great Powhatan, Indian chief of the Virginia tribes at the time the Jamestown Settlement was established. But not many people know about this interesting group of natives who once called the Tidewater area their home.
Perhaps the most interesting person you’ll learn about was Powhatan. Powhatan, also known as Wahunsunacock, was a powerful leader of about 30 Algonquian-speaking tribes in and around the coastal region of Virginia. Powhatan ruled and guided the tribes in this area up to the arrival of the Europeans to the area in 1607. From then on he would see his territory and his leadership eroded by the relentless encroaching of the newly arrived European settlers.
A good starting point for anyone interested in learning more about the native peoples who first inhabited Virginia can be found in Colonial Jamestown. The Indian Village recreation located at Colonial Jamestown brings to life, in a real-world and practical way, the forgotten features of a Powhatan way of life. The Powhatan Indian village is based on archaeological findings at a site once inhabited by the Paspahegh Indians, the Powhatan tribal group closest to Jamestown, Virginia, and on descriptions recorded by English colonists.
The Jamestown settlement features replicas of what the Powhatan Indian houses called yehakins, which were typically scattered and interspersed between the trees. The yehakins were made from saplings bent and lashed together at the top to form a barrel shape. Woven mats or bark were placed on top of the saplings and space left for an entrance at each end of the house and an open hole at the center of the roof for smoke to escape. Inside the house, bedsteads were built along both walls.
An interesting fact to note is that these yehakins were constructed by the women. Women were in charge of the fuel and food, they also cooked and prepared food, gathered firewood, collected water for cooking and drinking, raised the children, made clothes, farmed (planting and harvesting), and made baskets, pots, cordage, wooden spoons, platters, and mortars. Women were also responsible for collecting edible plants. I that regard Powhatan women were botanist; in addition to being hairdressers (they cut hair for men and children) and butchers (they were in charge of processing the meat the men brought home), as well as tanners and seamstresses (they tanned the hides used to make clothing).
Now, although Powhatan chiefs were usually men, it is interesting to point out that they inherited their positions of power through the female side of the family. So the Powhatans relied on a matrilineal system to track their ancestry, in contrast with the Europeans whose heritage tracking system was a patriarchal one. Matrilineal societies were also a very common practice among other indigenous groups throughout Latin America and the Caribbean as well.
As the English settlers spread throughout Virginia during the 1600s, the Powhatans were forced to move inland, away from the fertile valleys that had long been their ancestral home. As their territory dwindled, so did the Indian population, falling victim to English diseases, food shortages and warfare. According to the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, the Powhatan people persisted adopting new lifestyles while maintaining their cultural pride and leaving a legacy for today, through their descendants still living in Virginia.
At the conclusion of my journey in Jamestown, I wanted to know what happened to the descendants of Chief Powhatan; where are they nowadays?
By the eighteenth century Powhatan Indian lands dwindled, as many tribes lost their reservations. Many other Virginia Indian tribes – the Rappahannock, Chickahominy, and Nansemond – were reported extinct by 1722. They became invisible as means of survival.
Today, the recognized Virginia Indian tribes’ population numbers about 5,800 where the Powhatan-descended comprise about 3,400 of that total.
The video below gives a detailed description about what the descendants of Powhatan, including other Virginian tribes are currently doing to reclaim their ancestry, heritage, and culture.
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