Author: Margaret Williamson Huber

professor emerita in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Mary Washington, and author of Powhatan Lords of Life and Death (2003)

Religion in Early Virginia Indian Society

Knowledge of religion in early Virginia Indian society largely comes from English colonists like Captain John Smith, who stated that all Indians had “religion, Deare, and Bow and Arrowes.” Because Smith and his countrymen almost exclusively dealt with the Powhatans of Tsenacomoco—an alliance of twenty-eight to thirty-two petty tribes and chiefdoms centered around the James, Mattaponi, and Pamunkey rivers—the most is known about them. The Powhatans worshipped a number of spirits, the most important of whom was Okee. Men cut their hair in imitation of Okee’s. To assuage his anger in times of crisis or court his pleasure before the hunt, they made sacrifices. Other spirits included the benevolent Ahone, the Great Hare creator god, an unnamed female divinity, and the Sun god. In charge of managing relations with these various spirits were the kwiocosuk, or shamans, who lived apart from common Powhatans and wielded the society’s ultimate authority. Quiocosins , or holy temples, housed the shamans and hosted various rituals. When weroances, or chiefs, died, they were reduced to bundles of bones and, for several years, stored in the temples. The Powhatans also had a variety of rituals associated with eating, hunting, male initiation, and the killing of prisoners of war. Smith described what appeared to be a “conjuration” and, on another occasion, a three-day dance that may have been a yearly harvest festival.


Powhatan (d. 1618)

Powhatan, whose given name was Wahunsonacock, was the paramount chief of Tsenacomoco, a political alliance of Virginia Indians whose core six groups all settled along the James, Mattaponi, and Pamunkey rivers. Introduced to the Jamestown colonists in 1607 as Powhatan, he was for a decade the most powerful point of contact for the English; in 1614, the marriage of his daughter, Pocahontas, to John Rolfe, helped end, at least temporarily, years of war. Coming to power in Powhatan, the Powhatan Indians’ principal frontier town on the James River, Wahunsonacock likely was raised much as any other Algonquian-speaking Indian would have been—learning archery and hunting from the men of his village. By 1607, he was paramount chief of Tsenacomoco, having expanded it, through a combination of force and diplomacy, to between twenty-eight and thirty-two tribes and petty chiefdoms. Powhatan negotiated with the English, and especially John Smith, attempting to reach accommodation with the colonists and, when he could not, attempting to intimidate or kill them. In 1609, he moved his capital from Werowocomoco to Orapax, which was farther west, and intensified his efforts to kill Smith and expel the English. Pocahontas’s marriage ended that stage of the conflict, and relations were peaceful until Powhatan’s death in 1618. When his brother, Opechancanough, became leader of Tsenacomoco, he launched the attack that inaugurated the Second Anglo-Powhatan War (1622–1632).


Political Organization in Early Virginia Indian Society

Political organization in early Virginia Indian society likely was similar across the several distinct and culturally diverse groups that lived in the area; however, due to the records left by the English colonists, the most is known about the Powhatan Indians of Tsenacomoco. The alliance’s six core groups lived along the James, Mattaponi, and Pamunkey rivers, with their capital, Werowocomoco, situated on the present-day York River. Each constituent group consisted of one or more towns ruled by a weroance, or chief, whose position was inherited matrilineally. For guidance, the weroance consulted his council, or cockarouses, and whenever he acted he was first obligated to seek the approval of his one or more kwiocosuk, or shamans. The mamanatowick, or paramount chief, ruled all of Tsenacomoco and likely combined the authority of weroance and kwiocosuk. He lived an opulent and exalted life—bejeweling himself in necklaces, bracelets, and a crown and traveling with a fifty-man bodyguard—but he was not an absolute ruler. He, too, consulted his council and, lacking a standing army or police force, he was not always able to enforce his will on subordinates. In the end, the ultimate authority in Tsenacomoco was religious, not political. Although the paramount chief was seen to own all of the land and its wealth, the shamans were empowered to intervene with the gods, mollifying them with sacrifices on the occasion of famine, flood, or other disasters.



The huskanaw was a rite of passage by which Virginia Indian boys became men. While such rituals were common among American Indian societies, the huskanaw was conducted by, among others, the Algonquian-speaking Powhatan Indians of Tsenacomoco, an alliance of twenty-eight to thirty-two petty tribes and chiefdoms centered around the James, Mattaponi, and Pamunkey rivers. Aligning it with various other religious rituals, they referred to the huskanaw as a sacrifice and told the Jamestown colonists that if they did not perform it their powerful god Okee would be angered and disrupt their hunting or cause natural disasters. Although the English colonists at first took this ceremony to be a literal sacrifice of boys, they quickly learned that the term was metaphorical. The word huskanaw refers to the youth of the initiates and to the fact that they were to be transformed into men.