Thursday, July 2, 2015

Book Review
"The Powhatan Indians of Virginia: Their Traditional Culture"
by Helen C. Rountree
 
If your intention is to write a novel about the settlement of Jamestown, Helen C. Rountree’s The Powhatan Indians of Virginia: Their Traditional Culture would be an essential resource.
 
If your intention is to write a novel about the Algonquian natives that lived at and near Roanoke Island (North Carolina) in 1583 and 1584, Rountree’s book would be an important resource.  Being that the cultural ways of the Powhatans and the coastal Algonquians of North Carolina are believed to be similar and being that historians are more knowledge about Powhatan culture than about the culture of the coastal Carolinians, reading about the Powhatan culture would be beneficial.
 
If you are a reader with a special interest in early colonial history and have read about Pocahontas and John Smith, you might appreciate this book’s factual content.  If you are none of the above, you should probably read something else.  This book does not entertain.  It is a slow read the primary purpose of which is to inform. 
 
The author divides her book into eight subject-matter chapters.  Here is a little bit of what you learn from each of the first seven chapters.
 
“Subsistence.”  Cutting utensils were sharpened reeds, spurs from wild turkeys, bills from sharp-billed birds, beaver teeth attached to sticks, the sharp edges of mussel shells, and quartz, quartzite, and flint west of the fall line of Virginia’s rivers acquired by trade and honed into cutting tools.
 
“Towns and Their Inhabitants.”  The right side of a man’s head was shaved to prevent his hair from interfering with his bow string while he hunted.  Women, using the edges of two shells -- like tweezers -- did the shaving.  The left side of a man’s head was grown long, up to 45 inches and was usually combed.  It was oiled into sleekness with hickory oil.  It was done up into a knot and stuck through with ornaments: deer antlers, a dried hand of an enemy warrior, wings of a bird, copper crescents, the skin of a stuffed hawk, long feathers, and shells that tinkled.  The hair at the top of the head was cut into a moderate-sized roach, which on special occasions might be augmented with deer hair dyed red.  Facial hair was rare, Native Americans having light beard growth.  What growth occurred was plucked.
 
“Manliness.”  Boys were continuously trained and socialized to fulfill the roles of provider and warrior.  They were trained by both parents to become hunters.  Mothers would refuse them breakfast until they passed archery tests.  Moss was thrown into the air for them to hit with arrows.  They were taken on hunting and fishing expeditions at an early age.  Their names were changed periodically to induce them to strive harder to fulfill tribal expectations.  The name given to a boy at birth would be changed to reflect how much or how little he had progressed.  The weroance (ruler) of a village would bestow on him a befitting name if he performed a great exploit.
 
“Sex Roles and Family Life.”  A man could not acquire a wife until he had proved himself to be a provider.  He sought to attain female interest by providing the subject of his interest gifts of food.  A feast followed her agreement.  He was required to provide bride-wealth – material possessions: mortar and pestle, mats, pots, bedding, beads -- to her parents.  The bride was brought to the groom’s dwelling.  Her father – or father substitute – brought the couple’s hands together.  The groom’s father broke a long string of shell beads over their heads.  They were now married.  A feast followed.
 
“Social Distinctions.”  Important visitors were accorded lavish hospitality.  Upon their arrival, townspeople prostrated themselves, faces to the ground, fingers clawing the earth.  The villagers then formed two parallel lines.  As the visitors passed between the lines, the villagers, gesturing joyously, sang loud tunes.  The visitors were seated on mats opposite the town weroance.  They were accorded high praise by village orators.  They partook in a great feast.  They were privileged to smoke with the village’s personages.  Townspeople danced to entertain and honor them.  The celebration ended with each visitor being escorted to a sleeping accommodation that included a young woman companion painted red and oiled.
 
“Law, Politics, and War.”  Weroances had life and death power over their subjects.  Capital crimes were stealing from one’s own people, murder of a fellow Powhatan, infanticide, and being an accessory to these crimes.  The perpetrator was brought to the weroance’s house.  A great fire was built.  The executioner cut off the long hair on the left side of the criminal’s head to signify that he had been deprived of his manhood.  The criminal’s bones were then broken by beating.  While he was still alive, he was thrown into the fire.  Or, instead, he might be clubbed to death and then thrown into the fire. 
 
“Medicine and Religion.”  Eliminating large accumulations of water in the body involved sweating.  Several methods were used to release the water.  One involved sitting in a sauna-like sweathouse.  An attendant heated three or four stones until they were red-hot.  The rocks were placed on the house’s hearth.  The inner bark of white oak, mashed in a mortar, was placed over the rocks.  People suffering from edema, swellings, aches, fever, and chills were brought into the house and seated.  The attendant exited, closing the door behind him.  Minutes later the attendant returned, threw water on the rocks to create steam, and sprinkled water on the people to forestall fainting.  The people stayed in the house for about 15 minutes, then dashed outside and plunged into the nearby stream.  Afterward, they anointed their bodies with a mixture of bear’s oil and pulverized angelica and puccoon (a medicinal root) to close their pores even more and to keep away flies and lice.
 
I am very appreciative of the author’s scholarship and contribution.