04.16.14

Powhatan Indian Fact Sheet

These Facts For Kids sections are being added for young people learning about the Powhatans for school or home-schooling reports. We encourage students, especially older kids, to look through our main Powhatan Confederacy page for more in-depth information about the tribe, but here are some straightforward answers to the questions we are most often asked by children, with Powhatan pictures and links we believe are especially suitable for all ages.

How do you pronounce "Powhatan?" What does it mean?
It's pronounced "Pow-HAT-un" ("Pow" rhymes with "cow," and "HAT" rhymes with "cat.") It means "waterfall" in their own language, and was originally the name of the Indian village (located near a waterfall) where the chief Wahunsonacock hailed from.

Where do the Powhatan Indians live?
The Powhatans were original residents of what is now Virginia, where they famously interacted with the Jamestown colony. Some Powhatan descendants still live in Virginia today, but other Powhatan people were driven northward by British attacks and their surviving descendants currently live in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

What language do the Powhatans speak?
Powhatan Indians all speak English today. The Powhatan language has long been lost, and is known only from vocabularies recorded in the 1600's.

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 children had more chores and less time to play, just like early colonists' children. But they did have dolls and toys, such as miniature bows and arrows and hand-held ball games. Powhatan mothers, like many Native Americans, traditionally carried their infants 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, and occasionally built Iroquois-style longhouses. Some Powhatan villages were palisaded (surrounded by log walls for protection), and each village had its own council house and food storage building. Today, Native Americans only build a wigwam for fun or to connect with their heritage. 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?
The Powhatans didn't wear long headdresses like the Sioux. Usually they wore a beaded headband with a feather or two in it. The Powhatans painted their faces and bodies with different colors and designs for different occasions, and both men and women often wore tattooes. Both genders generally wore their hair long. Powhatan women dressed in knee-length skirts and the men dressed in breechcloths, with leather pant legs tied on if the weather was cool. Neither women nor men had to wear shirts in the Powhatan culture, but they did wear mantles and cloaks made of turkey feathers in the winter. Both genders wore earrings and moccasins on their feet.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. When they were on dry land, the Powhatans usually just walked. There were no horses in North America until colonists brought them over from Europe, and the Powhatan tribe lived primarily in the forest, so they were less interested in horses than the Plains Indians. Today, of course, 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. The women did most of the farming, harvesting corn, squash and beans. Powhatan men did most of the hunting, shooting deer, turkeys, and small game and catching fish. Powhatan food included soup, cornbread, and stews.

What were Powhatan weapons, tools and artifacts like?
In war, men wielded tomahawks or heavy wooden war clubs, and also carried shields. Hunters generally used bows and arrows, and fishermen used nets and pronged spears to catch fish from their canoes.

What are Powhatan art and crafts like?
The Powhatan tribe is known for their beadwork and basketry. Powhatans and other eastern American Indians also crafted wampum out of white and purple shell beads to use as regalia, currency, and commemoration of important events. Like European tapestries or Celtic tartans, the designs and pictures on wampum often told a story or represented family affiliations.

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. Our names are Laura Redish and Orrin Lewis and the title of our site is Native Languages of the Americas. The site was first created in 1998 and last updated in 2005.

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

Drawing of the historical clothing of Powhatan Indians.