The Powhatans

What do you know about Pocahontas’s tribal background?

In the Disney movie, Pocahontas’s father is referred to as Chief Powhatan, the leader of Pocahontas’s tribe. He was an actual historical figure named Wahunsenecawh who formed a confederation of over 30 tribes in the area we know today as Virginia. The term Powhatan refers to this conglomeration of peoples. By the time the English founded Jamestown in 1607, an estimated 14,000 to 21, 000 people lived in the chiefdom. Does Disney’s Pocahontas accurately capture the traditional customs of these peoples? Much cultural information falls outside of the scope of the animated movie, but in the representation of the Powhatans it provides, some elements are represented fairly while some are generalized or skewed.

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Powhatan ruled over the tribes of his confederacy as “paramount chief.” Each individual tribe maintained its own leader, or weroance, who was responsible for paying tribute to Chief Powhatan. The confederation was very powerful, able to draw warriors from all of its tribes. In Disney’s version, allied warriors arrive via canoe to aid Powhatan in the struggle against the Jamestown settlers.

Powhatan culture was economically stratified, wealth being determined largely by a man’s success in hunting. Labor however, was divided between sexes, the men being responsible for hunting and fishing, the women for the gathering and preparation of food. Manual labor was often shared depending on the job.

The Powhatans cleared areas of forest to farm beans and corn, central in their diet next to fish and venison.

Military prowess and stoicism was valued among men. In the Disney movie, Kocoum is praised for his success in battle. He also asks for Pocahontas’s hand in marriage in the Disney version of the tale. In reality, courting involved the paying of a bride-wealth by the male suitor to the bride’s parents in order to compensate for the loss of her labor and to prove the aptitude of the man as a husband.

The Powhatans were a polytheistic people, displaying individual autonomy in which deities to emphasize. Disney’s portrayal of Powhatan spirituality is largely generalized, more reminiscent of magical control over the elements than a tradition.

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In terms of dress and appearance, the Disney movie does a fair job, considering its animated aesthetic. Traditionally, Powhatans wore mostly buckskin clothing and ornaments of beads and small furs. Powhatan women wore a variety of hairstyles, but men most often plucked the hairs on the right side of their heads to prevent any from catching in their bowstrings.

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“Powhatan’s Mantle”

Pocahontas’s Disney appearance is arguable catered to fit modern, western ideals of femininity. Her attire resembles a modern dress, form fitting and covering her breasts, which probably would not have been the case. As tattooing “was a woman’s form of adornment among the Powhatans,” Pocahontas most likely had traditional tattoos on her arms, breasts, shoulders, face and thighs.

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A reproduction of a traditional Powhatan lodging.

The Powhatans Today

As of 2009, Virginia recognizes nearly 5,000 individuals as descendents of the Powhatan tribes. All over the US, tribal recognition is an ongoing process. Disney’s Pocahontas presents the Powhatans as an artifact of the settlement era, but in reality, descendents continue to take part in American society.

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Virginia Chiefs gather at pow wow held in 2009

Sources

Kimberlan Joanne, “Virginia’s Indians,” The Virginia-Pilot, June 10, 2009. http://hamptonroads.com/2009/06/special-report-virginias-indians-threepart-series

Roundtree, Helen C., The Powhatan Indians of Virginia, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.

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