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Lesson Plan
The People of Jamestown: The Powhatan Indians
Categorizing Information

Elementary, Middle

Students will describe the culture and environment of the Powhatan Indians.

Standards of Learning:
Virginia SOL: VS1g; VS2b, c, e; VS.3g, 4b; USI. 3b, 4b
National Standards of History: Historical Analysis and Interpretation; Historical Comprehension

Materials Needed for Activity:
Alternate Link: http://content.jwplatform.com/players/X17dPAPh-FaSAPBTu.html

Classroom map of Virginia

Other Helpful Resources:
See the Cultures at Jamestown and Living With the Indians background essays under Curriculum Materials.

Teacher Background:

Vocabulary Words:

tribe - a sociopolitical organization which may include one or more local villages/towns, districts or other groups which share a common ancestry

chiefdom – a sociopolitical organization in which the society is ranked; all the villages in a region are united and led by one very powerful person or family whose authority is inherited

werowance – leader of a tribe within the chiefdom

tribute – a gift or payment made to someone, usually a leader such as a werowance or Powhatan himself

conjurer – one who practices magic or serves in a religious role healing others or predicting the future; a lower ranking religious leader

puccoon – A valuable red dye sought in trade by the Powhatan Indians

The Powhatan people occupied the coastal plain of Virginia, located roughly between 36 and 38 degrees north latitude and 75 and 77 degrees west longitude. It includes the area east of the fall line, plus the Eastern Shore. Easy access to waterways, farmland, and forest throughout eastern Virginia allowed each village to produce most everything it needed. Because of the bountiful environment in which they lived and the spread of ecological variety over the coastal plain, the Powhatan had little need for economic specialization. Every tribe could produce what they needed in terms of foodstuffs, building materials, and utensils within their own territories. However, in order to obtain highly desirable luxury goods, such as copper, puccoon, shell beads, and pearls, the Powhatan people traded extensively with other Indian groups in areas as far away as the Great Lakes. The desire for luxury goods played a big role in the relationship between the Powhatan and the English. The English desperately needed Powhatan knowledge of the local environment and ways to use it in order to survive. The Powhatan desired copper, beads and other luxury items possessed by the English. Though the Powhatan and English traded and got along at times, they often fought. In the end, it was the overwhelming firepower of the English, in addition to devastating diseases that ultimately sealed the fate of the Powhatan people.


Step 1: Review the meaning of “culture” (way of life) with students. Remind the class that all cultures have certain basic needs which they meet in different ways. How they meet these needs may be based on geography, available resources and technology. The same thing is true for how societies organize themselves into functioning groups. Discuss the importance of “environment”, especially as it related to the Powhatan Indians. The local environment provided the Powhatan people with their every need. Have students look at the classroom map of Virginia to refresh their memories of Jamestown’s location, emphasizing its proximity to water and the richness of the forests and soil with an abundance of resources.

Step 2: Tell students they will be viewing a video to learn how the Powhatan Indians met their basic needs and how they organized their society. Divide the class into six groups. Each group should be assigned one cultural feature to discuss – food, clothing, tools and technology, recreation/arts, religion, and societal organization. Instruct students that as they watch the video, they should write down what they hear about the cultural feature they have been assigned.

Step 3: Have students view the video, Discovering Jamestown: The Powhatan Indians.
When the video has ended, have the students in each group discuss among themselves what they have learned about the Powhatan Indians and the cultural feature they were assigned.

Summary Activity: Ask each group to decide upon a spokesperson for their group and have that person report what they learned about their particular cultural feature. Use the following questions to guide discussion, if needed:

  • Food - What kinds of food did the Powhatan eat? How did they get it?

  • Clothing – What materials did the Powhatan use to make their clothing? How did they decorate themselves?

  • Tools and technology – What were some of the tools made by the Powhatan? From what did they make them?

  • Recreation / arts - What were some of the leisure activities enjoyed by the Powhatan? Give some examples of sports or games they played?

  • Religion - How would you describe their religion? What roles did their priests and conjurers have in society?

  • Society - How did the Powhatan organize their society? What form of government did they have?

As students report out, have them give examples of how the Powhatan were able to interact with their environment. Discuss how this compares with our society today and the way we relate to our environment in obtaining our goods and our necessities. Are there any similarities? Differences?


The “Discovering Jamestown” electronic classroom was made possible
by Dominion & Dominion Foundation and John and Dorothy Estes.


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