Any tribe with a sufficient number of boys held the ceremony annually, while smaller tribes, such as the Quiyoughcohannocks and Paspaheghs, staged the ritual together. (Captain John Smith wrote a description of part of the ritual that was published in 1612.) While many Virginia Indian tribes and groups practiced the huskanaw, Algonquian-speaking Indians on the Eastern Shore—according to the colonist John Pory—did not.
The ritual had the structure of a typical rite of passage: the boys were separated from ordinary society, sequestered in the forest for a period of time, and then returned to society with adult status. The first stage lasted for three days, the first two days of which were devoted to dancing. All the men and boys danced in groups of four, led by their weroance, in a large circle around a small group of elites who wore antlers on their heads and painted themselves black—the ritual color worn by kwiocosuk, or shamans, and therefore probably a sign of mystical connection. The other dancers painted themselves red, black, and white, and carried green boughs in their hands.
Early on the third morning, the boys, painted white, stood or sat in a group, in a clearing in the woods, away from the village. The men danced around them during the morning, while the boys' mothers, also painted black, sat in their houses keening as if their boys were dead and preparing materials suitable for a child's funeral. In the afternoon, the initiates were placed at the foot of a tree, where some of their male relatives stood in a ring around them while others set up a gauntlet leading to the boys. Five young shamans, one at a time, ran the gauntlet wearing only loincloths, each seizing an initiate and doing his best to shield him from the blows of short whips and clubs as he carried the boy back through. After the shamans delivered their captives to another tree, a gauntlet was again mounted and the ritual abduction achieved. This part of the ritual repeated once more before the men of the gauntlet tore down the final tree and from its branches made wreaths for their heads.
To conclude this stage of the initiation, the host weroance provided a great feast. The initiates, however, were ritually dead and so did not participate, instead lying under a tree like so many corpses. At the feast's conclusion they were whisked away to a secluded part of the woods, where they stayed for approximately nine months under the guidance of older men. At the end of the ritual most boys returned to their villages, ready to take on the adult responsibilities of marriage and serving in their chief's matchacomoco, or council.
While Okee's chosen boys did not actually die, they became more closely associated with the dead than were secular Powhatan men. The spirit they served presided over the dead, and the quiocosin , or temple, in which they would live also housed the mummies of dead chiefs. While other boys transitioned from the world of children to that of men, becoming even more integrated into Powhatan society, the young shamans moved away from society, carrying out none of the activities of ordinary men. Theirs was a kind of social death, and their new status allowed them to move freely between the spirits and the living.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Huber, M. W. Huskanaw. (2014, May 30). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Huskanaw.
- MLA Citation:
Huber, Margaret Williamson. "Huskanaw." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 30 May. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: March 9, 2011 | Last modified: May 30, 2014
Contributed by Margaret Williamson Huber, professor emerita in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Mary Washington, and author of Powhatan Lords of Life and Death (2003).