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The negative effects of European colonization on Native American groups have long been observed and studied, but little attention has been given to the impact those negative effects had on the roles of women in the leadership of tribes. All Native American groups faced disease, warfare, and limitations of their rights after the arrival of European settlers in their land, but women in particular were affected by hardships that resulted from colonization. By analyzing records of women acting as chiefs in the century immediately following the Powhatan tribes’ first contact with the Europeans and comparing the high number of women chiefs in the early years with the complete lack of women chiefs in Powhatan tribes from the eighteenth century until 1998, I found that the number of women in east coast Algonquian tribes wielding political power initially increased for several decades, but then decreased dramatically after the tribes were forced to enter treaties with the government of Virginia which limited the rights they had previously experienced. The number of women serving as chiefs, on tribal councils, and in intertribal groups increased as the Powhatan tribes began to strive to be more politically active in response to even further limitations to their rights in the form of segregation and race restrictions throughout the twentieth century. The increase in the number of Powhatan women involved with tribal and extra-tribal politics in recent decades indicates that Powhatan tribes are steadily overcoming the race-related obstacles before them and finally obtaining the legal and social equality that has eluded them since Europeans first began settling in the Powhatans’ native land in the seventeenth century. The correlation of the increase in the number of Powhatan women in leadership positions with the removal of race-related obstacles suggests that similar trends may be present in other cultures that have experienced significant race-related struggles.

Publication Date


Subject Major(s)

Anthropology, Cultural Anthropology

Current Academic Year


Faculty Advisor/Mentor

Faye Prichard


Virginia Commonwealth University. Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program

Is Part Of

VCU Undergraduate Research Posters


© The Author(s)

Female leadership in Powhatan Indian tribes: Changes from first contact with the Europeans to the present day