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Early Virginia Indian Education

Early Virginia Indians educated their children for the purpose of preparing them to be adults. Boys and girls were expected to absorb the community's values, including stoicism in the face of hardship, and master the skills necessary to survive and thrive. For men that included hunting and warfare and for women collecting plants, building houses, and making household furnishings. English colonists had little to say about how Indian girls were reared, either out of lack of interest or because such knowledge was considered to be none of their business. Powhatan boys were trained in hunting and warfare by their fathers and older male relatives in order to win personal names, learn marksmanship, and earn the right to join the hunt. Between the ages of ten and fifteen, they engaged in the several-months-long huskanaw ritual, in which they were ritually—but not actually—killed and then given a drug which turned them briefly violent and ritually erased their memories of boyhood. The English colonists saw this sort of training for boys as frivolous; they believed that boys, instead of girls, should plant and farm. Although education practices among the Virginia Indians changed in the years after contact with the English, what remained was an ingrained reluctance to send their children outside the family for instruction. MORE...


General Training

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.

In particular, boys and girls were expected to be hardy and stoic in the face of discomfort. Children learned at a young age how to acclimatize themselves to the cold of winter and the heat of summer. Clothing was limited, and in the winter especially, people were forced to stay active. Babies and young children were not coddled physically. The cradleboards in which infants were carried were more board than cradle; children were given moss to excrete in, but few or no wrappings to keep them warm, even in winter. Everyone, including babies, bathed daily and year-round in the rivers and creeks that ran beside the Indian towns. Toddlers and children went naked in all but the coldest weather; girls, at least, donned aprons when they began menstruating. The age for boys beginning to cover their loins was not recorded. Children, like adults, wore leggings when traveling through forested areas with briars, however.

Girls' Education

Crucial to a Virginia Indian girl's education was learning her tribe's territory intimately. As a woman she would be required to search the marshes, fallow fields, and woods for the particular plant materials she would need to build houses and fashion household furnishings. Girls learned what plants grew where, in what seasons they were useful, and how to recognize them at various times of the year. In addition to this training—which required rote learning and memorization—girls learned from their mothers how and what to build. They also contributed to the family's store of food and firewood by farming and foraging.

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.

Boys' Education

Boys' education was better recorded than girls', at least among the Powhatan Indians. In their earliest years, boys were supervised by women and older girls. They had limited contact with their fathers and other male relatives until they were skilled enough to join the hunt. They practiced stalking, marksmanship, and giving chase. Like women, men studied the terrain, learning where best to track deer, wild turkey, and other prey animals. Mothers likely took advantage of their boys' need to practice archery by setting them loose in the summer cornfields. Many of herbivorous wild animals of Virginia fed on the corn; rather than fence them out, women sent their boys out to shoot them. Among the Powhatan's linguistic relatives, the Roanoke Indians of the Carolina Sounds region, women raised "scarecrow" huts for the boys to lurk in. Any animals or birds shot contributed to the stew pot.

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

When the boys' education was complete, they underwent an initiation into manhood that many of Mid-Atlantic Indian tribes practiced and that the Powhatans called the huskanaw. To endure the huskanaw—after which came the right to marry—was a privilege, and boys worked hard for the honor from an early age. John Smith wrote that the best young hunters completed the huskanaw at anywhere from ten to fifteen years of age. A later colonial-era writer added that every few years an allowance was made for older boys who had not yet undergone the ritual, and they were sent on the huskanaw. No writer mentioned whether these young men lost face, but these Indians lived in small communities, and people were unlikely to forget that a boy was a bit old when he finally went through it.

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.

Smith and his compatriots understood that some of the boys were sacrificed there, which led Smith to write of a "sacrifice of children." Henry Spelman, who at age 14 went to live for a short time among the Powhatans and was unusual for his fluency in their language, was under the same impression. Pocahontas, the daughter of the paramount chief Powhatan, however, told her English husband John Rolfe, who then, back in England, told the travel writer and editor Samuel Purchas that nothing of the sort happened to the boys. In his History and Present State of Virginia, published in 1705, Robert Beverley Jr. told a more complete version of what happened to boys during the huskanaw. His sources probably were Indian men he had made tipsy with hard cider, a trick he used for information on at least one occasion. They told him that the Indian boys were taken deep into the forest and given a drink—no recipe was recorded—that seems to have induced hallucination, spasms of violence, and amnesia. If their violent outbursts became uncontrollable, the boys were confined to cages built of saplings.

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.

English Reactions

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.

Indian parents balked at the idea of letting others, and especially foreign colonists, rear their children. In particular, they were concerned that if they surrendered care of their boys, even for a couple of years, those boys would not learn, retain, and eventually pass on the essential hunting skills necessary for the community's survival. Only after more than a century, when the Virginia Indians had lost most of their land and ability to resist further cultural change, did they relent and allow some of their boys to attend the Indian School at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg.

Further Reading
Beverley, Robert. The History and Present State of Virginia. 1705. Edited by Louis B. Wright. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1947.
Rountree, Helen C. The Powhatan Indians of Virginia: Their Traditional Culture. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989. See especially Chap. 4.
Rountree, Helen C., and E. Randolph Turner III. Before and After Jamestown: Virginia's Powhatans and Their Predecessors. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002. See especially Chap. 3.
Smith, John. A Map of Virginia. 1612. [Historical section compiled from various texts by William Simmond.] In The Complete Works of Captain John Smith (1580–1631). Edited by Philip L. Barbour, I:119–190. 3 vols. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986. Also printed in part with modernized spelling in Haile, Edward W., ed. Jamestown Narratives: Eyewitness Accounts of the Virginia Colony: The First Decade: 1607–1617. Champlain, Va., RoundHouse, 1998. Pp. 205ff, 569ff.
Strachey, William. The Historie of Travell into Virginia Britania. 1612. Edited by Louis B. Wright and Virginia Freund, series 2, vol. 103. Cambridge: The Hakluyt Society, 1953. First book also published verbatim but with modernized spelling in Haile, Edward W., ed. Jamestown Narratives: Eyewitness Accounts of the Virginia Colony: The First Decade: 1607–1617. Champlain, Va.: RoundHouse, 1998. Pp. 569–689.
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).