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.


The Powhatan Indians likely worshipped many spirits, of which the Jamestown colonists recorded only a few: Okee, Ahone, the Great Hare, an unnamed female divinity, and the Sun. Among these, the localized Okee appears to have been the most important on a day-to-day basis. Although the word Okee appears to have been borrowed from the Iroquoian-speaking Huron, the Algonquian-speaking Powhatans apparently used it in almost the same way: to refer to spirits in general or, more probably, a category of spirits immediately involved in Powhatan activities. According to the colonists, the Powhatans sought Okee’s approval for many of their activities and frequently offered him sacrifices of tobacco, blood, deer suet, and other items.

Some accounts report that Okee was supremely ugly, leading some early colonists to associate him with the Christian devil. Others, however, describe him as a handsome young warrior or hunter whose hair is about five feet long on the left side and cut short on the right. To secure favor with Okee, secular Powhatan men wore their hair in the same fashion. According to one account, the ugly Okee rules the afterworld, and he may have been associated with warfare; there is one mention of a war party carrying his effigy into battle. He was considered to be a punitive spirit who, if angered, brought famine, drought, illness, and infidelity. The handsome Okee, by contrast, was thought to be a master of the animals. A category of spirit common among American Indians, he protects certain species of animals and either offers them to or withholds them from hunters. Okee was also said to have introduced the Powhatans’ ancestors to important cultural forms and to have created some or all of the world they knew.

Another account ascribes that creation to Ahone. The Powhatans described Ahone to the English as a benevolent, peaceable god living in the highest reaches of the heavens, who rules all other divinities as well as the Earth. He is the source of all good things, from the change of seasons to bountiful harvests to social harmony, and because it is his nature to provide these things, he requires no sacrifices; in fact, the Powhatans appear not to have paid him much attention at all.

The Great Hare appears in a Patawomeck creation myth. Living in the East, he is accompanied by the four winds or, sometimes, by the guardians of north, south, east, and west. According to the myth, the Hare creates men and women, confining them in a large bag. After repulsing giants interested in eating the people, he creates the waters, fish, and a single large deer. But then, against his wishes, the Hare’s companions kill and eat the large deer. For each recovered strand of deer hair he creates a single, normal-sized deer, after which he releases the women and men, placing one of each in separate territories on the Earth.

The sole reference to a female divinity comes in connection with the Patawomecks’ Great Hare. This anonymous goddess inhabits a halfway house on the road to the afterworld, near where the Great Hare lives in the East. Described as offering fine food and hospitality for travelers, she was thought to be a source of strength during the passage between the worlds of the living and the dead. While the Powhatans may have recognized other female spirits—for instance, they may have personified as female corn, beans, squash, and other staple foods—there is no evidence one way or the other.

Just as Okee may have overlapped with the Great Hare in some regards, so too may the Great Hare have been equivalent to the Sun, or at least have shared some of his attributes. Sun worship was common among Indians in southeastern North America; they associated the Sun with the creation of the world or of culture, claiming that it was a life force and sometimes even an ancestor. They often equated it with fire, especially the sacred temple fire or the household hearth. The Powhatans swore oaths by placing one hand on the heart and pointing with the other to the Sun; sometimes they swore by the mamanatowick, or paramount chief, possibly suggesting an equivalence between the two. Another account describes the Powhatans worshipping the Sun either at sunrise or sunset by making a circle of dried tobacco on the ground, sitting or kneeling within it, and praying to the Sun with outstretched arms, contorted faces, and even a “foaming at the mouth” that suggests a trance state.

Saponi Indians, like the Powhatans, recognized a supreme creator god and a number of helper-spirits. Unlike the Powhatans, however, they believed that this world was just the most recent of many created by the god, previous ones having either disappeared or been destroyed. The Saponis also credited their god with rewarding the virtuous among them with health and wealth while liars and cheats suffered from hunger and chronic illness.


Sacerdos Secotenfis (A Secotan Priest)

Kwiocosuk, or shamans, were the most important men in Powhatan society. Weroances, or chiefs, were obligated to seek approval from kwiocosuk before engaging in most important activities, and it was the shamans’ obligation to secure such approval from the spirits, usually by way of a trance. An entranced shaman shouted or howled, often in unintelligible language, contorting his face and body, and sweating profusely. Sometimes he was alone in the forest, other times in the quiocosin, or holy temple; sometimes several shamans conducted rituals together. While most adult Powhatan men conversed with the gamekeeping Okee, the kwiocosuk also conferred on behalf of the chiefdom with the ugly, or punitive, Okee, and with all spirits. They saw their role as divining the cause of Okee’s displeasure, as manifested in various natural disasters or social misfortunes, and appeasing it, usually by sacrifice. They identified thieves, predicted the weather, and even located elusive game for hunters.

Shamans also served as doctors, approaching patients in a trance, shaking a rattle over their bodies, and singing and chanting. They sucked the patient’s diseased area in order to draw out the illness and then applied a poultice of herbs that included a powder made of the red puccoon root, which the Powhatans also used to make body paint as well as for sacrifices to Okee.

Although not all anthropologists agree, there may have been two degrees of kwiocosuk, based on age. The junior members were more active and communicated with laypeople, while the elders were more socially isolated and enjoyed considerably more authority. All shamans were distinguished from ordinary Powhatan men in both their appearance and habits. Instead of the asymmetric hairstyle of a secular man, the kwiocos shaved his head, leaving a short fringe of hair at the front and a Mohawk-style crest, stiffened with bear grease, running from front to back. While other Powhatans painted their faces and upper bodies red, shamans wore black paint. Unlike laypeople, they wore their deerskin cloaks with the hair outside. Again, although not all anthropologists agree, they may have been celibate, living in the quiocosin either alone or with other shamans, and they may not have engaged in the ordinary activities of men—gardening, hunting, fishing, house-building, canoe-making, making war. In exchange for their council, the weroance provided for their needs.


Among the Powhatans, the quiocosin served as both a temple and a house for the kwiocosuk. The quiocosin was at least as large as a chief’s house (20 feet wide and up to 100 feet long, according to the colonist William Strachey) and usually situated in remote forest areas; entrance was forbidden to all but shamans and chiefs. Oriented east to west, with a door on the eastern end, the quiocosin was partitioned off into two areas. The east end, being a gathering place for priests, was empty save for a central fire that was never allowed to go out. The more restricted western end housed wooden carvings, including one of Okee. Other carvings took the form of posts or pillars set upright in the ground, the upper ends of which featured likenesses of human heads (perhaps suggesting ancestors or spirits). The western room of the quiocosin also housed a platform on which the Powhatans placed the bone bundles and valuables of their dead weroances, or chiefs. It was the shamans’ responsibility to look after these bones prior to burial.

Powhatan's Mantle

The most important quiocosin was at Uttamussak in Pamunkey territory, a few miles west of the paramount chief Powhatan‘s capital at Werowocomoco. Seven kwiocosuk lived there and appeared to have carried out rituals for all of Tsenacomoco rather than just a single chiefdom. Near the quiocosin was another large structure housing Powhatan’s accumulated wealth, including deerskins, pearl and shell beads, puccoon root, and copper, some of which would be used to preserve his body after death. The quiocosin at Uttamussak was such a holy place that common folk, who were never allowed to enter it, would throw offerings of tobacco, puccoon, and shell beads into the water as they passed nearby along the river.


Solenne Festum ad ignem celebrandi ratio (Their Method of Performing a Solemn Ceremony around a Fire)

Powhatan Indians made ritual offerings, or sacrifices, in order to appease Okee, and John Smith observed that this was a major responsibility of the kwiocosuk. But just as ordinary men could commune with spirits as necessary, so they offered minor sacrifices when the occasion required it. At least among the high-ranking members of society, it was common to throw a bit of food into the fire as a thanks offering before eating the main meal of the day. Similarly, a sacrifice—usually deer’s blood or suet on a large stone altar, or pawcorance—was required before beginning any important activity or upon one’s return from a successful hunt or raid. To appease Okee during fierce summer thunderstorms, shamans paddled canoes into the river and threw some tobacco, puccoon, or beads into the water. The same could be offered when approaching the quiocosin at Uttamussak.

Powhatans, who were almost constantly at war, also sacrificed their prisoners. While all enemies were eligible for capture, only the lives of women, children, and weroances were spared; the male prisoners were killed. The ceremony involved lighting a large fire in a wide, shallow pit and letting it burn down to hot coals. In the meantime, the Powhatans tied their captive to a nearby tree and over a period of hours broke his bones, cut off parts of his body, including pieces of skin, and threw them into the fire. Then they ripped open his abdomen and tossed his innards into the fire. Finally, they cut loose from the tree whatever remained and gave that, too, to the coals.

Huskanaw Cage

At least once a year, the Powhatans gathered to conduct a ritual, but metaphorical, sacrifice called the huskanaw, in which boys were transformed into men. Although the English apparently thought that the boys were actually killed, it is more likely that the Powhatans understood them to have transitioned from one world into the next. According to some English accounts, only shamans and chiefs expected an afterlife, while other accounts suggest that everyone did. Some located the land of the dead to the west, with the setting sun, while others put it in the east, with the Great Hare. Some accounts describe two afterworlds, one for the virtuous and one for the wicked, and some anthropologists have suggested this was borrowed from Christian teaching. It should be noted, however, that the idea was recorded among the Algonquians in the Carolina Sounds region as early as 1585, when contact with Europeans had been minimal. And if the concept did have a Christian origin, then it probably reflected, in some broad way, ideas that already existed among the Indians.

An Ossuary Temple

When Powhatan chiefs died, their bodies received special treatment; ordinary people were simply buried in individual graves. The chief’s body was carefully flayed and its flesh removed and dried either in the sun or by a very slow fire. When the skeleton was completely de-fleshed, it was rearticulated, replaced in its dried skin, the hollows of the joints filled in with sand, and the abdominal cavity packed with the chief’s treasure of pearls, shell beads, and copper. Additional dried flesh was stored in pots or a basket at the foot of the bundle, which was then placed on a platform at the western end of the quiocosin and left there to decompose until the building was abandoned.

While not described in historical accounts, the Monacan Indians, who lived in the Piedmont east of the falls of the James River, may have built large burial mounds there that could be twenty feet high or more. Excavations suggest that the mounds’ builders practiced secondary burial, in which the dead are placed in temporary graves, usually until only the bones remain, after which they are deposited in permanent graves. This probably happened every five years or so, when an extended social group, such as a clan or a village, gathered to honor and bury together everyone who had died in the interim.

Conjuration and Dance

John Smith describes in detail two other Powhatan religious rituals. The first occurred in December 1607, after a hunting party led by the Pamunkey weroance Opechancanough captured Smith. In an effort to “conjure” whether Smith’s intentions were friendly, Opechancanough gathered his seven highest-ranking kwiocosuk, near or at Uttamussak. The ceremony lasted three twelve-hour days, with a feast punctuating the end of each day. While his subordinates wore red and black, the leading shaman was painted all in black. He wore a headdress of stuffed snake skins, weasels, and other animals all tied together at the tails and placed so that their skins fell down all around his head and face; their tails, meanwhile, formed a tassel at the top of his head. To create a model of their world, the shamans drew three or four concentric rings around a central fire: the first, made using corn meal, represented their own country, Tsenacomoco; outer rings of corn kernels represented the seacoast; and rings of short, smooth sticks denoted the English. After each part of the ceremony was accomplished, the shamans sang and shook rattles. The Powhatans determined that Smith’s intentions were indeed friendly, but the ceremony’s purpose likely also was to call upon one or more gods to accept the Englishman into their world.

A Festive Dance

The other ritual Smith describes is a dance that took place in the autumn of 1608. A party that included Smith and Captain Christopher Newport had traveled to Werowocomoco with the intention of presenting the paramount chief, Powhatan, with a number of gifts, including a crown. Wearing male garb, including green branches or leaves, otter skins, and antlers, about thirty young women danced for about an hour around a large fire. They carried bows and clubs and were painted like warriors. Afterward, the women changed into their ordinary dress and invited Smith into a common house, where they made sexual advances. A great feast followed. Although Smith was confused by the ceremony, it seems to have followed the general pattern of similar Indian rituals found in southeastern North America. Like the Powhatans’ dance, these were performed in the autumn and involved cross-dressing as well as sexually explicit dances and songs. The Powhatans may have been celebrating the harvest or the end of the year. That some of the dancers, like chiefs, wore antlers on their heads suggests that the dance may have been intended to invoke the blessing of Okee in anticipation of hunting season.

English Contact

Although Virginia Indians did not seek converts to their religion, and though they were willing to incorporate the Christian God into their pantheon, the English insisted on attempting to convert the Indians wholly to their own way of thinking. In Virginia the method was not missions; until the advent of the Brafferton Fund early in the eighteenth century (which paid for the Indian school at the College of William and Mary), all the missionizing was done by individual planters who hired young Indians as employees. Many Indian people resisted the conquerors’ religion, which seems to have created a period of religious limbo in the eighteenth century, when the old practices were no longer meaningful but the English ones were distasteful. When the changeover came, it was not at the hands of the Church of England (now the Episcopal Church) but at those of itinerant Baptist missionaries, who preached a less formal and more egalitarian version of Christianity. Thus it came about that most of the surviving Indian tribes in Virginia have tribal churches that are Southern Baptist today.

  • 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.
  • 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. Religion in Early Virginia Indian Society. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/religion-in-early-virginia-indian-society.
MLA Citation:
Huber, Margaret. "Religion in Early Virginia Indian Society" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 12 Apr. 2024
Last updated: 2021, January 29
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