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.

Any tribe with a sufficient number of boys held the ceremony annually, while smaller tribes, such as the Quiyoughcohannocks and Paspaheghs, staged the ritual together. (Captain John Smith wrote a description of part of the ritual that was published in 1612.) While many Virginia Indian tribes and groups practiced the huskanaw, Algonquian-speaking Indians on the Eastern Shore—according to the colonist John Pory—did not.

The ritual had the structure of a typical rite of passage: the boys were separated from ordinary society, sequestered in the forest for a period of time, and then returned to society with adult status. The first stage lasted for three days, the first two days of which were devoted to dancing. All the men and boys danced in groups of four, led by their weroance, in a large circle around a small group of elites who wore antlers on their heads and painted themselves black—the ritual color worn by kwiocosuk, or shamans, and therefore probably a sign of mystical connection. The other dancers painted themselves red, black, and white, and carried green boughs in their hands.

Early on the third morning, the boys, painted white, stood or sat in a group, in a clearing in the woods, away from the village. The men danced around them during the morning, while the boys’ mothers, also painted black, sat in their houses keening as if their boys were dead and preparing materials suitable for a child’s funeral. In the afternoon, the initiates were placed at the foot of a tree, where some of their male relatives stood in a ring around them while others set up a gauntlet leading to the boys. Five young shamans, one at a time, ran the gauntlet wearing only loincloths, each seizing an initiate and doing his best to shield him from the blows of short whips and clubs as he carried the boy back through. After the shamans delivered their captives to another tree, a gauntlet was again mounted and the ritual abduction achieved. This part of the ritual repeated once more before the men of the gauntlet tore down the final tree and from its branches made wreaths for their heads.

To conclude this stage of the initiation, the host weroance provided a great feast. The initiates, however, were ritually dead and so did not participate, instead lying under a tree like so many corpses. At the feast’s conclusion they were whisked away to a secluded part of the woods, where they stayed for approximately nine months under the guidance of older men. At the end of the ritual most boys returned to their villages, ready to take on the adult responsibilities of marriage and serving in their chief’s matchacomoco, or council.

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While in the woods the boys endured severe privation and may have experienced hallucinations, possibly provoked by drinking a “poison” (according to John Smith) or some kind of potion (according to the colonist Robert Beverley Jr.). Those who were to become kwiocosuk saw Okee calling them to his service. The Powhatans said that the spirit killed those whom he chose, and some have seen this as a reference to the fact that some of the boys probably died during the initiation; after all, they were confined, nearly naked, in a so-called huskanaw pen, or bentwood framework, in the woods during all types of weather. According to John Banister, death during an initiation was almost unheard of and the Appamattucks, during a ceremony early in the 1690s, brought all their boys home alive. Although some anthropologists disagree, Smith wrote that the ceremony was designed to produce kwiocosuk; Banister and Beverley, on the other hand, believed it turned boys into highly focused warriors and councillors. An anonymous writer in 1688 pointed out that “the priesthood belongs to a family, and they have it by inheritance.”

While Okee’s chosen boys did not actually die, they became more closely associated with the dead than were secular Powhatan men. The spirit they served presided over the dead, and the quiocosin , or temple, in which they would live also housed the mummies of dead chiefs. While other boys transitioned from the world of children to that of men, becoming even more integrated into Powhatan society, the young shamans moved away from society, carrying out none of the activities of ordinary men. Theirs was a kind of social death, and their new status allowed them to move freely between the spirits and the living.

  • Barbour, Philip L. “The Riddle of the Powhatan ‘Black Boyes.’” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 88 (1980): 148–154.
  • Rountree, Helen C. The Powhatan Indians of Virginia: Their Traditional Culture. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.
  • Smith, John. “A Map of Virginia. With a description of the Countrey, the commodities, people, government and religion.” In The Complete Works of Captain John Smith, Vol. 1, edited by Philip L. Barbour, 119-370. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986 [1612].
  • Strachey, William. The Historie of Travell into Virginia Britania. 1612. Edited by Louis B. Wright and Virginia Freund, series 2, vol. 103. Cambridge, England: 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.
APA Citation:
Huber, Margaret. Huskanaw. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/huskanaw.
MLA Citation:
Huber, Margaret. "Huskanaw" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 23 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2020, December 07
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