Published on June 17, 2012 by Amy
The Powhatan are a branch of the Algonquin speaking Indians that populated the northeastern part of the United States at the time of colonization. Powhatan is an Algonquin word meaning “at the falls”, describing the original lands of these people (ENAT, 198-200). At their peak, the Powhatan were members of a huge union of various bands, “The Powhatan Confederacy” based in what today would be the state of Virginia. The Powhatan are the signatories of the oldest treaty written in America by England dating back to 1646. The Powhatan population suffered greatly for its contact with the early British settlers. Half their number were wiped out by disease before the year 1700. Even more would be lost to war between the English and the Powhatan, capture and “exporting” them to England as curiosities and still further ravages of new, alien diseases born by the English.
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The Powhatan Renape, the word Renape means “human beings”, that remain today, are a smattering of those various bands that once formed the great confederation: the Chickahominy, the Eastern Chickahominy, the Mattaponi, the Nansemond, the Pamunkey, the Potomac, the Rappahannah and the Upper Mattaponi.
In 1982, the Powhatan Renape nation received recognition by the State of New Jersey and the state ceded the Rancocas (Living Stars) State Park to the Powhatan Renape to serve as the Rankokas Reservation of the Powhatan Renape Nation (Roy Crazy Horse, Cheif, letter dated Setpt. 17th, 1988).
The Powhatan Renape adopted a flag after recognition to fly over their returned land. That flag was white and bore the tribal seal in the center. That seal was quartered, first and fourth quarters black, second and third white. Over the horizontal axis was the representation of a Powhatan long house or wigwam, in front of it and covering the vertical axis was the great “sacred tree” born on the back of a turtle, a reference to the Indian legend that the earth itself was a turtle and we are all residents upon its back. In the first quarter was a crescent moon, the second bore a blazing sun, the third a display of native fruits and vegetables and the fourth bore an overhead view of a turtle’s back.
Circling these four quarters was a bright blue ring bearing a ghost eagle, sacred to most Indian people, at the top, a running bear straddling the right side, the aforementioned turtle at the base of the circle and a Powhatan warrior stretching up the left side.
Around 1990, the 1,100 strong nation modified its seal and therefore, its flag. The new seal continues with the main elements of the original, but drastically eliminates much of the ancillary design.
Now, the main device is a rainbow, forming almost a complete circle. The seven colors of the rainbow are represented starting with red at the center and ending with violet at the outer edge of the circle. Each color is separated from the preceding by a narrow white fimbriation.
Centered on this rainbow is the “sacred tree” still atop the back of a turtle. Rising from the “sacred tree” is a white eagle. The eagle’s wing arch upward encircling a yellow and orange sun against a red backdrop. This new device also appears upon a white flag.
Chief Roy Crazy Horse of the Powhattan-Renape (“Symbols of the Powhattan Renape Nation, NAVA News, Jan/Feb, 1989, 1&6) nation explains the symbolism thusly:
“The Powhattan-Renape flag is based upon the circle and the number four. The circle symbolizes life, the cycle of life, and the shapes of living things. It is wholeness, completion, the all embracing, the people, the Great Hoop of the Nation, and the universe, all in one. The circle appears in this paining as a rainbow, the sun, the eye of the eagle, and the eyes, nostrils, scales and entire body of the turtle. The number four symbolizes the four seasons, four times of the day, and the four ages of humankind. It manifests here as the four entities which we see – the turtle, the sacred tree, the white eagle and the sun.”
“The turtle represents Turtle Island, the ancient native name for the continent now called North America. It also represents the entire earth, for many traditional cultures here and elsewhere in the world refer to the earth as a giant turtle … like riding on the back of a great turtle.”
“The sacred tree symbolizes all life, and it grows at the center of the universe. Its condition is a reflection of the health and happiness of all living things in general. The left or right side of the sacred tree mirror each other, yet they are also opposite, but they are one in the oneness of the tree. This principle, which appears throughout this drawing, and everywhere in the outer world, is represented by the number, being both the duality of the one and the unity of the two. Thus multiplying 3 by itself, this sacred tree has nine tiers, or levels of leaves.”
“The white eagle is a spirit eagle, a traditional American Indian symbol of sacredness, transformation, and watchfulness for the well being of the coming generations. Some traditional elders say that there was once a great native American leader and spiritual leader named White Eagle, who traveled across this turtle island bringing a message of peace and unity to the people. As with the turtle and the sacred tree, the white eagle is a universal symbol, representing physical life taking spirit form and soaring skyward. Here we see the scales of the turtle, which represent the physical world, evaporating through the trunk of the sacred tree, which is rooted on this turtle island, to become the spirit being of the white eagle, who’s head is turned sunwise as it looks towards rebirth.”
“The fourth entity is the sun, perhaps the most universally prominent of all symbols, which in unity with the earth is a giver of life. Its twelve rays represent the principles of three times four, which has many applications. Unity is expressed through the children as the third element. Also, there are legends among the native people here and elsewhere that tell of twelve clans, twelve nations, etc., that make up the whole of their kind, and great leaders are often spoken of as having twelve disciples. The sun is a great leader symbol. Twelve also plays a role in the turtle’s make up, with it’s twelve main scales, and the one in the center, which like the ball if the sun, symbolizes their oneness.”
“Thus we have four entities with their opposing, yet mirroring qualities – earth (turtle), sun, plant (tree) and animal (eagle). Turtle and tree of the land, eagle and sun of the sky. These four entities also represent the four elements; turtle – as water, tree – as earth, eagle – as air, and sun – as fire.”
“But there is also a fifth entity here, the rainbow, whose seven spectrum colors represent the principles of three and four together. As the fifth entity, it serves to unify the four, the duality of dualities, as the rainbow unifies the duality of earth and sky. Five also manifests in this painting as the five fingers of the turtle’s hand and the eagle’s wings. The circle of the rainbow connects all these beings into one ever-flowing lifestream. Universally, the rainbow is a symbol of hope, the future, the beauty of the world, and the realization of our highest dreams.”
“Powhattan Chief Wahunsonakeh once said ‘One must learn how to live. Not just how to make a living, but how to find a path of beauty in this life. We begin by knowing who we are”.
By understanding the symbols of the Powhattan Renape, we can begin to understand who they are.”