What is known of the educational practices of Virginia Indians is limited to the observations of Jamestown colonists, visiting English observers, and later American historians, and applicable mostly to the Algonquian-speaking Powhatan Indians, although the practices of Virginia tribes from other language families were probably similar. These writers agreed that Virginia Indians educated their children within small settlements dominated by blood relations. Boys and girls were expected to emulate their elders, learning the values and skills necessary for their survival and inclusion within the community.
The all-male English colonists, who arrived at Jamestown in 1607, recorded nothing about how girls were reared, possibly because the Indian women considered it to be none of men's business and would not answer their questions. It is most likely that girls' mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and older siblings and cousins—people with whom they lived in the villages—trained them by example. If Virginia Indians followed the practices of better-recorded tribes west of the Mississippi, the girls carefully observed their elders making things but asked few questions. They then practiced their new skills privately. To demonstrate a skill before mastery was to invite public ridicule. Girls were expected—but never forced—to complete their educations in time for menstruation, which is to say, in time to be married. If married women failed to contribute fully to their new families, their husbands could demand a divorce.
The community exerted pressure on boys to learn hunting and warfare. For instance, boys' nicknames were earned according to how well—or how poorly—they performed their newly learned skills. The desire to bring pride and avoid shame through a personal name led boys to seek out bigger quarry (animal or human) and greater danger. Men continued to receive new names in adulthood, the most prestigious bestowed by chiefs as rewards for outstanding military performance. The pressure to earn new and better names remained even into old age.
In another form of community pressure, boys were trained from an early age to associate good marksmanship with getting enough to eat. Not only were boys presented miniature bows and arrows before they could walk, but according to the Englishman William Strachey, who visited Jamestown from 1610 until 1611, their breakfasts often depended on their shooting skill. Mothers tossed moss into the air and insisted that their boys earn their food by hitting it with an arrow.
Fathers did their part by refusing to allow their boys to accompany them on hunts until their marksmanship, coordination, and running skills were adequately developed. Boys were forced to practice long and hard to earn the privilege of joining the hunt.
The huskanaw began with a two-day mass gathering that featured dancing and feasting. The larger Powhatan tribes conducted their own tribalwide ceremonies, while smaller tribes such as the Quiyoughcohannock and Paspahegh hosted joint huskanaws, like the one in 1608 that several Englishmen attended. First the boy-candidates ran a gauntlet three times, then feasted, then ran the gauntlet a fourth time. After this came a moment in the ritual that Smith and many other English colonists misunderstood. The boys were brought forward and ritually—but not actually—killed by the adult men as the women and girls wept piteously. At this point in the 1608 huskanaw, the Englishmen were asked to leave, and the candidates were led into the forest.
After several months of this regimen, the boys returned to their villages. Their boyhood memories, including even their ability to recognize their own mothers, was said to have been erased; if a boy slipped up and acknowledged, for instance, a boyhood friend, he was sent to huskanaw a second time, an event that often resulted in the candidate's death. Some boys died even during their first huskanaw, and it was that circumstance, explained to English colonists at a time when there were no fluent interpreters, that led writers like Smith to assume that some boys were always "sacrificed."
Boys just returned from their huskanaws acted disoriented and wild, and the community undertook to educate them all over again—this time in how to be men. Certain older men, whom Beverley called "keepers," took special responsibility for this phase of education. Although the keepers' duties were onerous, their roles were considered to be especially prestigious. Smith heard that once they had completed the huskanaw, young men were eligible for the priesthood; Beverley corrected him, writing that the initiation made them eligible for positions as councillors to their chiefs. That was the highest status available to people outside of chiefly families, and it was earned, not inherited.
The English colonists had their own ideas about the proper roles to be played by men and women, and perceived the Indians boys' training as hunters to be sporting and not serious. They made no connection between that training and the speed with which Indian men, beginning in 1616, became sharpshooters with English firearms. The colonists instead saw the girls' farming as men's work—which it mostly was in Europe—forced upon them by their lazy fathers and brothers. The English even went so far as to attempt to take over the education of Indian children in an attempt at preparing them for participation not in their traditional Indian communities but in the new English colony of Virginia. For at least two centuries, it had been custom among the English at various levels of society to foster out their children into other families—preferably of a higher status—as a means of advancing socially. The English colonists saw no reason why Indian children could not be educated in the same manner.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Rountree, H. C. Early Virginia Indian Education. (2012, September 20). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Education_Early_Virginia_Indian.
- MLA Citation:
Rountree, Helen C. "Early Virginia Indian Education." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 20 Sep. 2012. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: November 3, 2010 | Last modified: September 20, 2012
Contributed by Helen C. Rountree, professor emerita of anthropology at Old Dominion University and author of Pocahontas's People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four Centuries (1990) and Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough: Three Indian Lives Changed by Jamestown (2005).