Published on September 2, 2014 by Amy
The various tribes and villages of the Native American Powhatan people living in Virginia were connected through the shared spiritual and religious beliefs running deeply through their communities and culture. Religious life of the Powhatan was centered around the natural world and the spiritual forces existing within it, affecting the weather, crops, hunting and daily life. Learning about these beliefs helps to understand their culture, their politics and their history with greater clarity.
According to the Jamestown Settlement and Yorktown Victory Center, the Powhatan people believed in a range of gods, but the focus of religious life was centered around two specific gods: Ahone, the creator of the world and giver of good things and Oke or Okeus, an evil god who was appeased through offerings and gifts. Various gifts were given to Oke to secure his good-will included food, furs, tobacco and jewelry. Few rituals or offerings were made to Ahone, as the Powhatans maintain that Ahone was an abstract force that formed the world from a disc before disappearing. Other gods included the spirits of natural forces such as water, fire, thunder and the spirits of animals.
According to research published in the “American Indian Quarterly” in 1992 by the University of Nebraska, Powhatan priests were considered to be intermediaries between the people and their gods and performed the roles of seer and fortune-teller as well. Priests were expected to know and understand the secret intricacies of future events, and future plans for the tribe in the past were based upon the priest’s predictions. In addition, priests were medicine men and healers, overseeing the health and well-being of the tribe’s people with traditional and herbal medical practices. Some individual priests had more specific roles in the community, presiding over rituals and ceremonies.
The largest community ritual held each year was the midsummer celebration of first-fruits. Following this, the Powhatan offered prayers each day after bathing in the river and made offerings of tobacco, food and furs whenever someone witnessed an omen or wished to pray for goodwill from the gods. Public and seasonal rituals were overseen by the local priests and centered around the tribal temples, where offerings and ceremonies were held. Powhatans also practiced sacrifices to the deities. This included everything from small food sacrifices to human sacrificial offerings. Humans were taken from among the Powhatans’ prisoners of war.
Medical and healing matters of the Powhatan people were intertwined with the religious and spiritual spheres of tribal life. Sickness and disease was caused by transgressions of a person or the tribe against their pantheon of deities. Some illnesses were seen to be the result of influence of bad or evil spirits. Priests — or shamans — who were in charge of the health care of the tribe employed traditional practices such as native herbal medicine, purging, vomiting and blistering in addition to ceremonial practices such as sweat lodges.