when the English arrived in 1607, Native Americans used just three of the 28 major linguistic groups common in North America
Source: Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States, Indian Tribes and Linguistic Stocks, 1650 (Plate 33, digitized by University of Richmond)
The Europeans who arrived in Virginia discovered numerous tribes with distinct identities, but the different tribes used only three major linguistic groups: Algonquian, Siouan, and Iroquoian.
One way to understand the Native American societies in Virginia, at the time of first contact in the 1500's, is to examine where different languages were spoken. In contrast to Virginia, there were 22 linguistic groups and 135 regional dialects spoken within California. The hunting/gathering groups on the West Coast lived in fragmented, separate spaces compared to the agricultural tribes in Virginia.1
All of the 30+ tribes controlled by Powhatan in his paramount chiefdom spoke Algonquian dialects. He expanded his original control over six tribes towards the east, north, and south, but gained no control towards the west. Powhatan's enemies on the west all spoke Siouan languages, suggesting they shared a common culture and perhaps common resistance against efforts by Powhatan to gain control over territory west of the Fall Line.
The Nottoway, Meherrin, Tuscarora, and Cherokee spoke Iroquoian languages. The Occoneechee maintained a trading post at their crossing of the Roanoke River, and must have developed expertise in all the different languages of their customers.
Modern understanding of the languages used by Virginia's Native Americans is warped and incomplete. The first Virginians never developed writing, unlike cultures in Central America. Interpretation of Native American words (especially place names) is based on records from the first English settlers, later conversations with Native Americans whose culture had been altered by contact with Europeans, and in many cases from myth.
For example, the standard definition for the place name "Shenandoah" is that it means "Daughter of the Stars" - but evidence for that claim is thin. "Shenandoah" may mean "sprucy stream," or it may mean "deer," or it may mean many other things. In Saratoga County, New York, the Shenendehowa High School students call themselves the Plainsmen because they content that "Shenendehowa" means "great plains." Other stories suggest the Shenandoah Valley (and river) were named for Chief Sherando, who supposedly led an Iroquoian-speaking tribe.2
"Shenandoah" may have been Algonquian, Siouan, or Iroquoian. Henry Heatwole's solution for the origin of Shenandoah, after examining various options, was "I choose pleasing over plausible."3
Algonquian speakers lived in Tidewater, Siouan speakers lived on the Piedmont, and Iroquoian speakers were dominant north of the Potomac River - but maps differ on which linguistic group should be assigned to the Ohio River territory disputed by Iroquois, Shawnee who spoke Algonquian dialects, or perhaps Siouan-speaking groups
Source: Library of Congress, Map of linguistic stocks of American Indians (by John Wesley Powell, 1890)
1. Andre Rolle, California: A History, Harlan Davidson Inc., 1987, p.22
2. "Bulletin of the Virginia State Library," Volume 9, 1916, p.191, http://books.google.com/books?id=uTBVAAAAYAAJ; "Shenandoah," Online Etymology Dictionary, http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=Shenandoah; "Sports," Shenandoah Central Schools (New York), http://www.shenet.org/grapevine/Archives/sports.htm (last checked September 21, 2013)
3. "Guide to Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive," Shenandoah National Park Association, http://www.guidetosnp.com/web/Information/ShenandoahNationalPark.aspx (last checked September 21, 2013)
Iroquoian speakers lived south of Powhatan's paramount chiefdom, and the Cherokee in the Tennessee River watershed shared the same language group
Source: An Atlas of Virginia, American Indians (First Americans) circa 1600 (Map 26, produced by the Virginia Geographic Alliance)