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Powhatan Indian Fact Sheet

Native American Facts For Kids was written for young people learning about the Powhatans for school or home-schooling reports. We encourage students and teachers to look through our main Powhatan Confederacy page for in-depth information about the tribe, but here are our answers to the questions we are most often asked by children, with Powhatan pictures and links we believe are suitable for all ages.

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  Powhatan Tribe

How do you pronounce "Powhatan?" What does it mean?
Originally Powhatan was pronounced "Pow-HAT-un." ("Pow" rhymes with "cow," and "HAT" rhymes with "cat.") Today, it is often pronounced with the stress on the first syllable, like POW-huh-tan. Powhatan meant "waterfall" in the Virginia Algonquian language. It was the name of Chief Wahunsonacock's hometown (which was located near a waterfall.) Sometimes you may see it spelled Powatan, Powhattan, or Powhatten instead. The different spellings and pronunciations are due to the fact that the Powhatan language was traditionally unwritten, so English colonists just wrote words down however they thought looked good. The same Powhatan word could be spelled four ways by four different colonists.

Where do the Powhatan Indians live?
The Powhatans lived in eastern Virginia, where they famously encountered English settlers in the Jamestown colony. Here is a tribal map of Virginia showing the original location of the Powhatans and their neighbors in the state. Some Powhatan descendants still live in Virginia today. Other Powhatan Indians were driven northward and their descendants live in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

What language do the Powhatans speak?
The Powhatan Indians speak English today. The Powhatan language, also known as Virginia Algonquian, has not been spoken in centuries. Some Powhatan Indians continue to use Powhatan today for cultural and religious purposes, the same way Italians may use Latin words. If you'd like to learn an easy Powhatan word, wingapo (pronunciation win-gah-poe) is a friendly greeting. You can see a picture dictionary of some Powhatan animal words here.

How was the Powhatan Confederacy organized? What was Powhatan government like?
Originally, there were many different Algonquian tribes in Virginia, including the Powhatan, Pamunkey, Mattaponi, and Chickahominy tribes. They shared the same language and culture, but each village was independent from the others. In the 16th century, Chief Powhatan united all these villages into the Powhatan Confederacy. Many villages joined the Powhatan Confederacy willingly. Others were conquered by Chief Powhatan.

Who were some famous Powhatan Indians?
The most important Powhatan Indian was Chief Powhatan. His real name was Wahunsonacock. "Chief Powhatan" was his title as the leader of the Powhatan Confederacy. Chief Powhatan was actually more like a European king than a traditional Algonquian chief. Normally in Algonquian society, village chiefs came together in councils to make important decisions, and all the chiefs had to agree to take an action. But Chief Powhatan was an absolute ruler. Village chiefs had to obey Powhatan's commands and pay tribute to him.

The most famous Powhatan Indian was Chief Powhatan's daughter Pocahontas. A lot of stories told about Pocahontas are not true. Pocahontas was only eleven years old when she met John Smith, and they did not have a romance. The story about Pocahontas saving his life may not be true either. But Pocahontas really did marry another English colonist, John Rolfe. It was the most famous interracial marriage of the time. Pocahontas was only 21 when she died, but many people are descended from her son Thomas. Here is a website comparing the life of the real Pocahontas with the fictional Disney story.

What was Powhatan culture like in the past? What is it like now?
Here are the homepages of two of the Powhatan tribes of Virginia: the Chickahominy tribe and the Pamunkey tribe. On their websites you can learn about Powhatan Indian life in the past and present.

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How do Powhatan Indian children live, and what did they do in the past?
They do the same things any children do--play with each other, go to school and help around the house. In the past, Indian kids had more chores and less time to play, just like early colonial children. But they did have dolls and toys, such as a miniature bow and arrow or hand-held ball games. Like many Native Americans, Powhatan mothers traditionally carried their babies in cradleboards on their backs--a custom which many American parents have adopted now.

What were Powhatan Indian homes like in the past?
The Powhatans didn't live in tepees. They lived in small round houses called wigwams, or in larger Iroquois-style longhouses. Here are some photos of wigwams and longhouses like the ones Powhatan Indians used. Some Powhatan villages were palisaded (surrounded by high log walls for protection), and each village had a council house and food storage building. Today, Native Americans only build wigwams or longhouses for fun or to connect with their heritage, not for shelter. Most Powhatans live in modern houses and apartment buildings, just like you.

What was Powhatan clothing like? Did they wear feather headdresses and face paint?
Powhatan women wore knee-length fringed skirts. Powhatan men dressed in breechcloths, with leggings in cooler weather. Shirts were not necessary in the Powhatan culture, but Powhatan people did wear mantles and cloaks made of turkey feathers in the winter. Powhatan men and women both wore earrings and deerskin moccasins. Here is a picture of Powhatan Indian clothing, and some photographs and links about American Indian costumes in general.

The Powhatans didn't wear long headdresses like the Sioux. Usually they wore beaded headbands with a feather or two in the back. Sometimes a chief wore a crown of feathers on top of his head pointing straight up, like this. The Powhatans painted their faces and bodies with different colors and designs for different occasions, and often wore tattoos. Powhatan men and women both wore their hair long, but Powhatan men often cut theirs shorter on the right side than on the left.

Today, some Powhatan people still have a traditional headband or moccasins, but they wear modern clothes like jeans instead of breechcloths... and they only wear feathers in their hair on special occasions like a dance.

What was Powhatan transportation like in the days before cars? Did they paddle canoes?
Yes, the Powhatans made dugout canoes by hollowing out large trees. Here's a website with pictures of indigenous boats from different tribes. Over land, the Powhatan Indians used dogs as pack animals. (There were no horses in North America until colonists brought them over from Europe.) Of course, today Powhatan people also use cars... and non-native people also use canoes.

What was Powhatan food like in the days before supermarkets?
The Powhatans were farming people. Powhatan women planted and harvested corn, squash and beans. Powhatan men hunted for deer, turkeys, and small game and went fishing on the shores. Powhatan foods included soup, cornbread, and stews. Here is a website with more information about traditional Indian food.

What were Powhatan weapons, tools and artifacts like?
Powhatan warriors used tomahawks or heavy wooden war clubs, and also carried shields. Here are pictures and information about the Native American tomahawk and other traditional weapons. Powhatan hunters used bows and arrows. Fishermen used nets and pronged spears to catch fish from their canoes.

What are Powhatan arts and crafts like?
The Powhatan tribe is known for their American Indian beadwork and basket art. Like other eastern American Indians, Powhatans also crafted wampum out of white and purple shell beads. Wampum beads were traded as a kind of currency, but they were more culturally significant as an art material. The pictures and symbols on wampum belts often told a story or represented a person's family. Here is a photo of a Powhatan mantle with wampum beadwork designs.

What other Native Americans did the Powhatan Indians interact with?
Primarily they interacted with each other. Remember, the Powhatans originally lived in many distinct tribes throughout the region. The Powhatan Indian villages usually traded with each other, but before Chief Powhatan united them, they sometimes fought with each other too. The Powhatan bands also frequently fought against the Iroquoian tribes of Virginia. One neighboring tribe the Powhatans usually had good relations with was the Catawba tribe, with whom they sometimes intermarried.

Why did the Powhatan Confederacy fight with the English colonists?
As with any war, there were multiple reasons. Cultural misunderstandings, religious tensions, and provoking acts of murder all played a role. Underlyingly, though, the cause of the conflict was simply that the English colonists wanted control over Powhatan lands and resources and the Powhatans refused. Eventually the English conquered the Powhatans and took what they wanted. Here is a more detailed website about the Anglo-Powhatan wars, and a copy of the historic Middle Plantation Treaty of 1677 that ended the war and established a Powhatan reservation.

What was Powhatan religion like?
Spirituality and religion were important parts of Powhatan life, and some people continue to practice traditional beliefs today. It is respectful to avoid imitating religious rituals for school projects since some Native American people care about them deeply. You can read and learn about them, however. You can visit this site to learn more about Powhatan myths or this site about Native American religions in general.

Can you recommend a good book for me to read?
If you want to know more about Powhatan history and culture, three interesting sources for kids are Life of the Powhatan, The Powhatan Confederacy, and Powhatan Indians. For older kids (or adults), Pocahontas's People is a terrific history of the Powhatans from the 17th century through today, and Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma is a compelling biography of Pocahontas herself. You can also browse through our recommendations of Indian books in general. Disclaimer: we are an Amazon affiliate and our website earns a commission if you buy a book for sale at one of these links. Most of them can also be found in a public library, though!

How do I cite your website in my bibliography?
You will need to ask your teacher for the format he or she wants you to use. The authors' names are Laura Redish and Orrin Lewis and the title of our site is Native Languages of the Americas. We are a nonprofit educational organization working to preserve and protect Native American languages and culture. You can learn more about our organization here. Our website was first created in 1998 and last updated in 2020.

Thanks for your interest in the Powhatan Indian people and their language!

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Learn More About The Powhatan Indians

Powhatan Indian Tribe
An overview of the Virginia Powhatan today and in the past.

Powhatan Language Resources
Powhatan Indian language samples, articles, and indexed links.

Powhatan Culture and History Directory
Various links about Powhatan Indian history and traditions.

Powhatan Indian Words
Powhatan Indian vocabulary lists.

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