Reporters and Mythmakers: Depicting Virginia Indians

The manner of their attire by John White (ca. 1585)

This John White painting was made from firsthand observation, showing the clothing and body paint worn by Indians in the Outer Banks region of present-day North Carolina. The English would soon call the area Virginia, and indeed these Algonquian speakers were cultural cousins of the Indians then living in the Chesapeake Bay region.

The man's body is painted, as for a special occasion. He wears feathers in his hair and copper beads or pearls around his neck and right wrist. On his left wrist is a band or guard to protect his arm when shooting the longbow he holds. A cougar's tail hangs between his legs. His head is almost entirely shaved, except for a crest of hair, or roach, a hairstyle once common among men in the North American woodlands.

Even though White visited Roanoke, his image should not be seen as a perfectly reliable document. In this painting, for instance, although the subject's attire and hairstyle are true to eyewitness descriptions, the Indian's distinctive stance is a reflection of an artistic tradition popular in contemporary Europe and endorsed by Queen Elizabeth: the Hapsburg posture, in which the subject posed with hand on hip and turned toward his pointed toe.

It was this combination of the exotic and the regal, the American and the European, that appealed to White's patrons and helped make this image, for its time, the archetypical representation of American Indians. The figure was iconic enough in Europe to be appropriated, twenty-five years later and third-hand, by William Hole to represent an Indian of a tribe that was not actually from present-day Virginia.

<em>The manner of their attire</em>

The manner of their attire by John White (ca. 1585)