Algonquian Life and Customs

Coming of Age- The Huskanaw

The huskanaw was a ritual ceremony for young boys ages 10-15. Due to the unfamiliarity of English chroniclers with the ceremony, it was misunderstood by some who claimed boys were sacrificed to please the gods. Their is no real evidence to support such claims. Comparing the various accounts, it is clear that what was going on was a ritual with a series of challenges that once met would not only mark entrance into adulthood, but in some cases define those who demonstrated charismatic or priestly traits befitting a shaman, weroance, or indications of expertise as a hunter, fisherman, warrior, councilman, and other callings. Some report the boys being painted different colors as indications of likely future expertise and identity. Large tribes held their own huskanaw while smaller tribes, such as the Quiyoughcohannocks and Paspaheghs, staged the ritual together. The ceremony took place over a period of three days, beginning with a gathering of men and boys for two days of dancing while their mothers gathered at home mourning as if their children were metaphorically dying. On the last day, mothers came to tell the boys goodbye before they were placed in the forest without food and water. They were also given a poison potion (wysoccan). Allegedly, after months in the forests, the regimen wiped their memories of their parents, language, even their names. Some became delirious. Most significantly, they became men, forgetting they had ever been boys.

Child Naming

A few days after the child is delivered, family and neighbors gather in the house, the father takes the child in his arms, and declares the child’s name.


The Powhatans were matrilineal. Wahunsenacah chose wives from the leading families of his paramount chieftancy. After a wife bore a child, she took the child home with her until he/she was old enough to leave her. The child then grew up in Wahunsenacah’s home. The child was expected to be a chief in the tribe of the mother. Most chiefs were men, but some were women. In 1676, Cockacoeske, for example, became chief of the Pamunkey after her husband’s death and ruled the tribe until her death ten years later. She was the descendant of Opechancanough, Wahunsenacah’s brother. It was the custom to have as many wives as one had copper and beads to purchase. Once a man decided upon a woman, he made love to her and then sought out her father to find out the price. After the price was agreed upon, the ceremony was held. Parents would bring the daughter to the dwelling of the suitor, a long string of beads was broken over the couples’ hands, the beads then given to the father, and a wedding feast began.

Towns and Houses

The average Algonquian town had 20 to 30 houses, each with about four to six inhabitants, meaning the average town was about 120 to 180 residents. Houses were oval shaped with a hole to enter and another in the ceiling to allow the smoke to exit. Chief’s houses were larger than others. Racks were built along the walls for beds and sitting and a fire was built in the center for warmth. John Smith located 200 or more towns surrounding the rivers of the Chesapeake Bay, including the Eastern Shore.

Indian Towns Explored by John Smith

Legend: The yellow triangles represent towns with a chief; the white crosses represent Smith’s limits of knowledge of the region, as he indicated.

Crime and Justice

Settlers believed the “infidels were lawless.” according to Henry Spelman who lived with the Powhatans for nearly a year and a half. He reported the penalty of execution for crimes of murder, bribery, robbery of copper, corn, or beads, and adultery. Those convicted of capital offenses were brought before the chief’s house, bound hand and foot, and had their left hair lock (the one worn on the left side because the a right side lock could become entangled in the bowstring) cut off. They were then beaten and thrown into a fire.

Planting and Harvesting Corn

After striping the bark from the trees to kill them, they cut them down and clear the land for planting. With a stick, they make holes into which they drop four or five kernels of corn and two to three beans. When the corn grows up the beans wrap around the corn. Each corn stalk has four to five ears. The corn is gathered in baskets and placed on mats in the sun to dry. The dried ears are brought into their houses and shelled. Most of this work is done by women. In terms of the chief’s corn, a special day is set aside where commoners assembled to gather, dry, and shell his corn and place it in designated houses.

Chiefs and Commoners

When the chief visits any of the houses, he is treated with reverence and presented with beads, copper, and food. Priests or shamans are distinguished by a closely shaven right side of the head, and a lock on the left side; some of them also have beards. Commoners have no beards at all; they pull the hair out as fast as it grows. Commoners also shave the right side of their heads closely and have a long lock going down the left side of the head.


Bows and arrows are the chief weapons of offense and clubs the weapon of defense. Open field warfare is never the means of fighting. Instead, they hide behind trees, shoot arrows, and duck back behind the trees to place another arrow in the bow. They use stealth and feints to try and out wit the enemy. Those who kill the most of the enemies are held in high esteem. The winners gather together and “have a kind of Howling or Hubbub,” according to Henry Spelman. This kind of warfare does not produce massive casualties


Hunting undergirded the subsistence economy of Virginia Algonquians. Their bow and arrow skills, stamina in extended hunts, sometimes three or four days without shelter and little rest, and knowledge of the movements and habits of their prey made them superior hunters to to the colonists. In 1608, John Smith reported that over the course of two weeks Powhatan hunters gave starving Englishmen a hundred squirrels a day in addition to turkey, deer, and other wild animals. Mother honed their sons’ skills with daily tosses of objects into the air for target practice. A son’s first kill was an occasion for a celebratory feast. At such times, an offering of deer suet might be made to the spirits to pay respect and give thanks for the gift the animals provided. It was an acknowledgment of the reciprocal relations between men and animals, similar to the gift exchanges Algonquians practiced among themselves when visiting neighboring tribes or villages. In addition, every part of the animal was used for clothing, shelter, arrow points, camouflage, adornments, medicine and other needs.


Dancing is a favorite pastime at feasts or celebrations. They dance in a circle with others in the center. Those on outside shake rattles and move in a counter-clockwise direction stamping the ground as they move. According to a John White watercolor (shown here), they also move around posts with carved heads. Another pastime is a game resembling English football. A ball is dropped and kicked from the top of the foot; whoever kicks it the farthest wins.

Algonquians Dancing


The Algonquians were idlers who hunted and fished and let women do all the work.


English characterization of Algonquian hunting and fishing was the product of English cultural understandings that these were sporting activities, not a subsistence necessity. In royal and aristocratic circles hunting was a diversion for country gentlemen, idlers, and others with nothing to do. So colonists made moral judgments on Native American hunters and fishermen that had little to do with social and economic conditions.


These are customs and practices chiefly of the Powhatans and Patawomecks as described by Henry Spelman, a fourteen-year old boy who lived among them and provided the only inside account available on Algonquian customs and life. On greater detail regarding hunting and animals, see Virginnia DeJohn Anderson, Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America (Oxford, 2004).

%d bloggers like this: