The Powhatan Indians were governed by customs that regulated their behavior and defined good manners versus bad. These customs must have been widely understood and were likely fairly strict. Despite the lack of written laws or a police force, the Indians “seldom or never brawl,” according to, the first president of the Virginia Council. In his History and Present State of Virginia (1705), wrote, “They are very severe in punishing ill breeding, of which every Weroance [chief] is undisputed Judge, who never fails to lay a rigorous penalty upon it.”
An example of strictly enforced decorum can be found in the proceedings of the council that advised the mamanatowick, or paramount chief. According to the, writing in 1687, “The Junior [councillor] begins first & delivers his sentiment without interruption.” Each councillor speaks in his turn, “thus orderly they every one declare their judgemts, & advice,” only after which the paramount chief speaks. When a chief met with a foreign dignitary, his entourage sat in respectful silence. Beverley wrote of an occasion where a weroance was speaking formally to an English delegation in New Kent County: “and during the time of his speech, one of his attendants presumed to interrupt him, which he resented as the most unpardonable affront that could be offered him.” The chief responded to this affront by immediately killing the man, then continuing “on again with his speech where he left off.”
Custom dictated how people, even relatives, met after spending some time apart. Travelers encountered along the trail and newcomers arriving in Indian towns were treated the same: they were seated in silence, offered a shared, and perhaps . Only then did they speak, stating their business or exchanging news. The same decorum prevailed when a family member returned after a long trip. Even if everyone was anxious to hear what his or her relative had seen and learned, the group nevertheless allowed the returnee to sit, relax, and perhaps eat before sharing his or her story. Such customs left John Clayton with the impression that the Indians were “sluggish and slow of speech.” But in fact, haste in any of these instances would have amounted to disrespect. It might also have caused misunderstanding and, with it, flared tempers.
Minor conflict was a regular feature of Indian life, especially inwhere people lived in close quarters and without much privacy. The proper response to such incidents was to withdraw (a tactic much used in war, as well), but if that was not possible, then the Powhatans preferred to remain stoic. Self-control—whether it be in not interrupting, in not prematurely demanding a person to speak, or in not losing one’s temper—was an important ethic, and Powhatan society was equipped with various means of controlling, appropriately venting, or sidestepping aggression. who did not get along could obtain a , for instance. And dissatisfied wives could conduct extramarital affairs so long as they were sanctioned by their husbands. Dancing was an important outlet for aggression and frustration. In the evening, after finishing work and eating a meal, Powhatans regularly played music and danced around a fire, activities that helped them get past the problems of the day.
For deeper grievances, though, there was the practice of taking enemies captive in battle and, if they were male, torturing them to death. (Although never the subjects of torture, women nevertheless participated in torturing others.) The victim was expected to be utterly stoic while this was done. In fact, when captured Englishmen cried out under torture, they were mocked by the Indians, whose traditions taught them that such outbursts demonstrated weakness.