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Powhatan Featherwork

We now come to what is perhaps the most interesting topic in the material life of the southern tribes, the woven feather technique. An art so ancient and so elaborate can hardly be expected to have persisted from colonial times down to the present day where the process of deculturation among the conquered tribes has gone so far. But surprising as it is, the Virginia Indians have not entirely forgotten, nor even lost, the art of weaving feathers into the foundation of textile fabrics. The antiquity of the woven-feather technique is attested by virtually all the authors of the old colonial descriptions of Indian life, while its beauty and high esthetic quality have made it the supreme textile achievement in a number of ethnic centers on the Pacific coast, in California, Mexico, and Ecuador, as well as in Polynesia. In the Gulf area the feather technique was also widely distributed. Fortunately we have a number of references to it and some details of description are recorded. After presenting the Pamunkey facts, I shall revert to the distribution of this art in the Southeast and upward along the Atlantic coast to southern New England, giving reasons for the inference that this admirable art was one of the complexes emanating from some center of dispersion in the south and drifting north along the coast. The feather art is reported in early times from most of the lower Mississippi and Gulf tribes and as far north as the Delawares of Pennsylvania and the Narragansett of Rhode Island. The facts pertaining to the Virginia survival of this much discussed art and technique are...

Powhatan Pottery

First let us look over the material from the Virginia tidewater area. Everywhere here from the southern boundary of Virginia by actual observation, north-ward even through the Delaware valley, the pot-sherds are almost identical in material, decoration and color. Holmes has appropriately called the ceramics of the tidewater “the Algonquian type.” On the Pamunkey, Mattaponi, Rappahannock, James, and Chickahominy rivers it is all the same, the rims, decorations, and ingredients being practically uniform within a certain range of variation.

Powhatan Canoes

The means provided by the Powhatan tribes for transporting themselves about in their marshy wastes was the dugout canoe. This article describes these canoes, their method of manufacture, and provides pictures of them and their paddles.

Pamunkey Hunting Grounds

Perhaps the most striking feature of all in the natural history of the modern Pamunkey comes before us in the survival of the controlled hunting and trapping rights: the custom by which each hunter in the band controls an assigned and definitely bounded area within which he enjoys the exclusive privilege of setting his traps for fur-bearing animals.

Legal Status of the Pamunkey Tribe

The Pamunkey, with a resident population of little more than a hundred, still preserve their national independence under the privileges accorded them by the State of Virginia almost two and a half centuries ago. They enjoy the unique distinction of being in all likelihood the smallest independent nation in the world. Pollard’s synopsis of the political circumstances leaves nothing to be added.1 In government the tribe is a true democracy, over which, however, the State of Virginia2 exercises a kindly supervision. The State appoints five trustees to look after the interest of the Indians. No reports of these trustees could be found on file at the office of the governor of Virginia, and their only function that could be ascertained to have been performed was the disapproval of certain sections in the Indian code of laws. Laws thus disapproved are expunged from the statute book. The tribe is not taxed, but they pay an annual tribute to the State by presenting through their chief to the governor of Virginia a number of wild ducks or other game. The chief and council are the judge and jury to try all who break the law, and to settle disputes between citizens. Their jurisdiction is supposed to extend to all cases arising on the reservation and which concern only the residents thereon, with the exception of trial for homicide, in which case the offender would be arraigned before the county court of King William County. The Indians claim, however, that it would be their privilege to use the courts of the commonwealth of Virginia to settle such difficulties as could not be...

Opechancanough and Don Luis

Jamestown was founded in 1607 on land recently conquered by the Powhatan Confederacy. Movies about Pocahontas have given the impression that the “Powhatan Indians” were concentrated on the Chesapeake Bay.  They were not. The villages on the coastline of the Chesapeake were the vassals of the Pamunkey Indians, who forged the confederacy.1 The capital of the confederacy, Werowocomoco, was originally on the north side of the York River, not near Jamestown. Note that the town’s name ends with “moko” which is very similar to the Itza Maya title for king, mako, which was also used as a suffix by Itsate Creek Indians in Georgia and western North Carolina to signify a capital. Wahunsenacawh, (also known as Powhatan) the Weroance  (commander) of the Powhatan is consistently portrayed as a illiterate, simple-minded “chief” of a primitive society.  In fact, he was a highly intelligent leader of a dynamic indigenous society and the father of Pocahontas, who was known for her intelligence. Opechancanough, the brother of Wahunsenacawh, could understand several European languages, plus was very familiar with European culture.2 Pamunkey Indians told the Jamestown colonists that he had come to them as a noble of a land far to the southwest.3 This is strong evidence that he was one and the same person as “Don Luis”, a son of a Virginia Indian chief, who was captured by the Spanish ship crew in 1561.4 The ship then sailed to Spain. He spent five years in Spain, receiving a thorough education by the priests. He observed Spanish life and customs.  He learned from the Jesuits and Franciscans how to write and also how to plan future...
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