From the Tribe of Pocahontas

 Powhatan's Mantle, c. 1600–38 | PC: www.ashmolean.org

Powhatan's Mantle, c. 1600–38 | PC: www.ashmolean.org

Memento Artem

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Fall in the air creates a feeling of wonder, serenity and exploration. Often times, it inspires the urge to watch the childhood favorite, “Pocahontas.” Frankly, blasting “Colors of the Wind” while running through a path of autumn trees is an amazing experience.

Putting the amazing soundtrack aside, this movie has helped introduce children of diverse backgrounds to a basic understanding of an Native American culture for over 13 years.

However, there’s a particularly interesting aspect of the culture displayed in the film that warrants further investigation––the art of Native American tribes. Among various other types of crafts, the Powhatan nation was known for their leatherwork, beadwork and pottery.  Pocahontas hailed from the Pamunkey tribe headed by her father, Chief Powhatan. This tribe was apart of the Powhatan nation, made up of tribes located around Virgina. This tribal nation was comprised of over 30 tribes containing around 10,000–15,000 people around the time of the arrival of the English in 1607.

One famous example of Powhatan art is a leather garment known as “Powhatan’s Mantle.” This article of clothing, associated with the tribal nation paramount chief, can be traced back to the 17th century. It’s made of four white-tailed deer skin pieces sewn together with sinew thread and adorned with shells.

The pattern on the buckskin depicts a human figure with animals on each side. Additionally, there’s a pattern of circles surrounding the three figures. Although the meaning of the design is unknown, it’s been thought to be a type of map.

Colonization evolved the beadwork of the Powhatan nation who crafted beads from shells and clay. They decorated these beads by scratching designs into the surface. Often a specific type of white shell bead called roanoke and jewelry made from hammered copper were used to display status.

John Smith’s arrival introduced the Powhatan people to blue beads.These were coveted because they were believed to carry spiritual power. Early Virginian colonists described Powhatan pottery to be as fine as English dinnerware. The pottery was made using a coil and pinch technique which would then be tempered with crushed oyster shell or crushed rock powder. The cooking pots had a cone-like base so the pots could be placed among coals to evenly distribute the cooking food.

The people of the Powhatan paramountcy knew how to respectfully source materials from the earth.  The Powhatan people and their intentional respect for the environment around them developed a harmony where beautiful artwork can be found. This tribal nation truly knew how to paint with all the colors of the wind.


Cameron Cizek is a senior studying computing.