by Emma Tharp
The American Indian tribes of Virginia encompasses ten State and one Federally Recognized groups:
In 2013, the Virginia Department of Education released an informative, educational video on the Virginia Tribes.
Geography and Related Groups
American Indians have been in Virginia for over 12,000 years – coming from across the continent of North America to settle on the eastern coast. These diverse groups are divided into three language groups: Iroquoian, Siouan, and Algonquian. These language families were separated by their territories. The Iroquoian people lived in the southern part of Virginia, the Siouan in above the Virginia fall line, and the Algonquian along the coasts of Virginia. Over time, territories and geography have greatly changed from its original form (that stretched out into what is now North Carolina and Maryland).
Many of today’s tribes in Virginia have some sort of relation to the Algonquian tribe, Powhatan, that developed into a power center in the late 1500s through the early 1600s. The paramount chief (called the Powhatan) organized almost 30 smaller Algonquian tribes into one interconnected web that would help the others with food production, trading, and in battle. Eight of the state recognized tribes are related to the Powhatan affiliation by marriage or blood. The other tribes who were not directly related still maintained trading and farming networks with the Powhatan people on and off again throughout their history.
As discussed, there are three main language groups spoken by the Virginia tribes. These languages have different dialects and versions all over the country. From the beginning of the United States up until the middle of the 20th century, many scholars believed that these three groups had nothing in common but just happened to live in the same area. Through archaeological and ethnohistorical research, scholars have figured out that the three groups had extensive economic and social relationships.
The first tribe, the Powhatan, spoke Virginia Algonquian, an extinct language spoken primarily in the coastal areas of modern Virginia. At its height in the 1570s, the language group had spread and was spoken from modern Georgia to Pennsylvania. When the Powhatan tribes absorbed or conquered other smaller, weaker tribes. Their language would then be absorbed into the Algonquian language group. This spread the language up and down along the east coast through the early 1600s until European arrival.
The next language-centric tribal groups are the Siouan, or the Siouan-Catawban language family. This language is divided into two groups because of the removal of the Native Americans after the formation of the United States. The group that moved westward speaks the Siouan dialect and the people who remained in Virginia or who moved back speak the Siouan-Catawban dialect. After the deletion of the Indian Removal acts, many Indians moved back to the east but the language differences were too great to absorb each other again. This would eventually lead to fighting over the original language between the different groups, making the pre-United States version very hard for scholars and members of the tribes to trace through the modern versions of the language group.
The last tribal group is the Iroquoian language family. This language family is all but extinct, with only a handful of native speakers left in the tribe. The Virginia tribes associated with this family are the Cherokee who speak the Southern Iroquoian dialect; and the Seneca, Onondaga, Mohawk-Oneida, and the Susquehannack who all speak a variation of the Northern Iroquoian dialect. Many of the Iroquoian language speakers were moved across borders and states in the wake of westward expansion and thus the difference in dialects and the extinction of this language family. This separation led to the break-up of the large Iroquoian speaking groups into many, very small bands that were essentially wiped out by the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The chart below shows the different pronunciations of certain letters of the alphabet in the Cherokee language, a language shared by the Virginia tribes of Onandaga, Mohawk, Susquehannock, and Oneida.
Major Historical Events
Although the American Indians of Virginia have a rich history, much of it is unknown due to the fact that they did not have a written language. The first known major historical event that we can catalog is the first interactions with Europeans. In 1559, the Spanish made their way up the eastern coast into Virginia. A few years later, the Roanoke settlement was built and then subsequently died out. A few years after that, the Jamestown settlement somehow survived for more than a year. Once there was a permanent settlement on US soil, the English began sending people over by the boatload.
Because of settlement, the tribes of Virginia had to fight other tribes and the Europeans when conflicts rose up. The three dominant language groups, Algonquian, Iroquoian, and the Siouan usually connected tribes because of the language similarities, or caused wars because of their differences. The Powhatan people, being such a big confederacy, had the most conflicts with outside bands of people. This included the European settlers and resulted in the First and Second Anglo-Powhatan Wars. These wars were about the anger the Indian people felt about lost land and food resources; while the settlers were angry about the warring of the different tribes near their settlements and towns.
These tensions lasted well after the Revolutionary War; and mostly resulted in bitterness and brief conflicts. In the early 1700s, many tribes such as the Rappahannock and the Chickahominy lost their reservations and had started to assimilate into the European culture. In the early 1800s, tensions worsened as more land was given to Westward settlers and more people started to resent the tribes. By 1850, most of the tribes’ rights had been taken away in an effort to take away their Indian identity. By the time of the Civil War, many racist and white supremacist people lumped Indian people with slaves and free Africans as dirty and lower people. Because of the Racial Integrity Act (the one drop rule) and the years of intermarriage with other peoples, many Indians had ‘mixed’ ancestry. This particular tension lasted until native people were given the right to vote in 1924.
The Virginia tribes today are still fighting for their rights to reservations, to call themselves a tribe, and to be able to call themselves a sovereign nation.
The food ways of the tribes of Virginia do not differ very much from the types of food eaten by other southeastern and mid-Atlantic tribes. This is because of the similar climate that supported the three most important food items; beans, corn, and squash.
The Virginia tribes had a diet that consisted mainly of the three sisters (beans, corn, and squash), other vegetables, and fish and shellfish. The Powhatan tribe lived next to the ocean and between the rivers, so seafood was in abundance. They also relied on the hunters of the tribe for deer, opossum, wild turkey, and duck. Like some other native tribes, the Powhatan people used most parts of the animals that they killed. The outsides of gourds and squash would be used for utensils, corn husks for pipes and toys, and skins would be used for clothing and bedding.
The Powhatan people used many foods for medicinal purposes, too. The Powhatan people grouped medicines and religion together because they thought that the two worked together to heal the spirit and the body. Most medicinal herbs, such as liverwort, yaupon holly, saps, and pine were used to heal open wounds such as scratches, infections, and body aches. These were mostly rubbed on to the body, not ingested, and were believed to have magical properties. They also participated in a ceremony every Spring to purge themselves of all poisons in the body. This ceremony was a way to bring in the new harvest season by purifying the members of a village.
When the Europeans started settling with more abundance, some people and tribes in the Powhatan Confederacy started trading medicines and food with the Europeans. The mix of different healing traditions actually hurt more people because of the different strategies used to heal them. The differences in what each group believed would heal them became one of the many points of contention.
Marriage and Kinship
According to early manuscripts, marriages were strictly between different clans and villages and were almost always initiated by the men. Courtship was initiated with gifts of food and presents to show the prospective bride’s family how wealthy the man was and that he could provide for his wife and any children they produced. If she accepted, the couple would then be bound by a string of beads which would then be ceremonially crushed before friends and family; this would mean they were married. Then, the woman’s family was given compensation in the form of a bride wealth for their loss of labor.
For many Virginia tribes, marriage was seen as a child producing arrangement. This meant that love was not strictly part of marriage but both parties agreed on the union. Marriage laws were not strict unless one person in the relationship was dishonest. Couples could get divorced; and with the other’s permission, a person could be in a love relationship with someone else while still married. In the case of a divorce, children were divided by sex to the corresponding parent. Couples usually negotiated a marriage term in which they would produce children and then separate after the allotted time. This scandalized many European settlers and whenever documents containing mentions of sexual freedom in native communities were found, they were destroyed or kept secret. This is why we have such a small collection of these mentions from before 1800.
Because the chief of a village was so powerful, he could marry many women, as it was a symbol of his power and wealth. The first wife was always the paramount and most respected of the wives, but each one was well provided for. When the chief and a wife could have no more children, he would compensate the women and she would go back to her village and become a normal citizen again, while the children stayed in the chief’s village to be raised by the other wives or his family. Unless elected the chief, his children were treated respectfully but as normal members of the village who had no extra requirements put upon them.
After the Indian Removal laws, many Powhatan people tried to conform to American ways to keep their lands. This meant that for many, traditional marriages and child-rearing processes were abandoned. Many native people also converted to Christianity, which at the time meant that divorces were frowned upon. Conversions to Baptist and Episcopal ways were the most common among the Powhatan people. Today, some Powhatan and Pamunkey people are trying to revive their traditional marriage ceremonies from before European contact and have started teaching traditional ways in schools on reservations as a way to bring back their pre-European heritage.
The Virginia tribes had a very complex yet similar religion. The Powhatan people, who were the largest and most dominant tribe, easily enveloped other smaller tribes into theirs. This left only a few religious differences which were dropped after being enveloped into the Powhatan tribe.
The Powhatan people mainly worshipped spirits. They had dozens of spirits who were all in control of only one aspect of tribal life. For example, Okee was the main spirit to pray to for guidance in moral and ethical issues, and in times of war. Ahone was the creator spirit of the world and the Powhatan people made sacrifices to it around planting and harvest seasons. These spirits protected only the people who believed in them, making their religion different from those tribes who believed that the same spirits protected everyone. Many spirits also had objects in nature that were associated with them. Hares, serpents, the sun, and the rivers were all important aspects of their culture that were associated with spirits; these objects played a large part in their religious ceremonies and creation stories.
The Powhatan people also used shamans that would help with medical problems. The herbs and medicines that were used had a special ritual associated with it. The shaman would pray to the ancestors of the person and make the medicine in a house that only the shaman and chief were able to enter. The shaman was also a spiritual guide. He or she would help a person in decision making, usually with decisions of marriage or in times of war. The shaman would also perform dances passed down from one shaman to another to usher in good crops, the continuation of peace, and for funerals, weddings, and births in the chief’s family. These ceremonies were vastly important to the tribes, making the shaman one of the most important and respected people in the tribe.
Another important ceremony was the marriage ceremony. It was tied to religion and tradition. First, a man would ask for a woman, if she agreed, the man would start to collect things for their life together. An elder of the tribe would join the couple’s hands and break shells or beads over the couple’s head. After a meal with all of their families, the couple would move into their home together. In the case of the chief, the chief’s other wives would also participate in the wedding and other ceremonies, such as the coronation ceremony.
Another practice was the traditional funerary practices. These would include a simple burial of the deceased with prayers to the spirits. The chief, on the other hand, would get an elaborate burial. The bones would be carefully stripped and would be kept in a bundle of the person’s belongings and traditional wrappings. These ceremonies made up a large part of the religious traditions of the Powhatan people.
These are some important words used by the pre-European members of the Virginia tribes.
Mamanatowick- paramount chief
Quiocosin- a temple or house for the shaman
Huskanaw- ceremony where boys become men
Weroance- commanders or leaders of a community
The political systems of the Virginia tribes are very complicated for the numbers of people actually in the tribe. Historically, they had very similar structures to other Southeastern tribes, but it grew more and more complicated with the inclusions of smaller tribes and branches off of the main tribal unit. This steadily included more people until the arrival of European settlers.
The main political structure started with the paramount chief. He ruled over the largest Powhatan village in the structure. There were around 30 other villages that were ruled over by the Powhatan all around what is now Virginia and North Carolina. These smaller villages usually had to help the main village in times of war and with large hunting parties. They also paid taxes with goods or services and had a spoken law code. The other tribes would also ask for permission before making any big decisions, or sending people away from the tribe. Almost all of the funerals, weddings, and ceremonies would be arranged by the chief, or by one of his advisors.
Today, the 8 Algonquian speaking people have formed their own political system since they are not federally recognized. Their traditional political pow-wows and rituals are still used on special occasions and for tourism uses. Since there are no official reservations big enough to use for everyone still associated with the tribes, there is less of a cohesive decision-making process. Many tribal members are not registered to vote in either United States elections, or in their own tribal elections. This problem of uninterested younger generations choosing not to participate in the political systems of their ancestors has been a concerning problem for Powhatan tribal members. They are working with the United States government to solve the crisis of depleting political resources for their tribal members. Even though the traditions are kept alive by tribal elders, younger generations are becoming less and less involved in the politics and culture of their ancestors.
Business and Economy
The Indian tribes of what is now Virginia have very similar cultures. But these cultures are very different from the perceptions that are shown today. For example, the Powhatan tribe’s economy is very different from what is portrayed in the movie Pocahontas, for example. The people of the Powhatan tribe had what is called a long-house as housing and for meeting areas. Each house had a fire place in the center of the structure. The tribes used the trees around them to make canoes, drying racks for food and wooden ladles and utensils. They would collect these items to pass down to children on their wedding day. The Powhatan people were also agriculturalists. They had been growing their own foods since before the arrival of the European settlers. Their material culture includes wooden toys, smaller versions of adult weapons for practice and jewelry from other tribes that were passed around and traded among the different tribes. These items made up their main economy as the villages used a goods for goods or a goods for services model of business. This meant that they traded what they had made or grown for other items they did not have or wanted more of.
For most of the Virginia tribes, the women of the village were gardeners and gatherers, and the men mainly hunted. This stemmed from the belief that women and men occupied different domains; the women tended the domain of new life and fruitfulness, and the men occupied the domain of death and warriors. This meant that the women of a village would be the ones making business deals with others in the tribe, as the men were not able to be around some of the products grown. This business model of the Powhatan people was fairly similar to the models of other Southeastern tribes and was grouped into the same culture after the arrival of the European settlers. This reconstruction of a Powhatan village at Jamestown. People in the village traded goods such as pots, raw food, and medicines with other villages and tribes which made their economy stronger.
The other Virginia tribes had very similar cultures and agricultural products as the Powhatan tribe, who sometimes conquered other smaller tribes making it easier to assimilate into the Powhatan culture. Other smaller tribes usually had a lower level of agricultural success, which changed what they could trade with other tribes and make with their own tribe, making a good deal to join the Powhatan tribe.
It is interesting to note that Virginia also holds (at this point in time) one of the oldest prehistoric sites in North America. Finds at Cactus Hill, located near the Nottoway River in Sussex County, date to around 18,000 to 20,000 years old (Goodyear 2005). This means that some of the earliest settlers to the continent came to Virginia, and many groups must have made their home within its regions.
By the Mississippian Period (AD 1000 – 1520s), large sedentary societies had formed all across the Southeast. As mentioned in the beginning, due to Native Americans not having a written language system, much of their cultures are largely unknown except for what European contacts were able to witness and record when they arrived. Archaeological research and excavations help to shed some light on the early American Indians of Virginia by examining the materials they left behind. In the Mississippian Period, trade was abundant.
Virginia material culture is very similar to much of the Southeast in term of prehistoric projectile points, ceramics, and other wares.
The Virginia Department of Education has a helpful discussion on their website the discusses the artifacts, arts, and economic systems of prehistoric, historic, and contemporary tribes of Virginia.
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