Jamestown’s Cultural Legacies: An American Indian Perspective

Jamestown’s Cultural Legacies:
An American Indian Perspective


By Karenne Wood
Special to Prometeo

In 2007, Queen Elizabeth II visited Virginia to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, the site of the first permanent settlement of English-speaking people in the Western hemisphere. I was among the Virginia Indian tribal members who performed a Welcome Dance at the State Capitol to honor her and to acknowledge historical connections between the Virginia tribes and the British Empire. More than a hundred Virginia Indians attended that event; clearly, they still view a relationship with England as important. The previous year, I’d been one of 55 tribal representatives who visited Gravesend, where Pocahontas was buried in 1617. It was a momentous journey, the first time an official delegation of Virginia Indians had visited England in almost 400 years.

In her remarks to members of Virginia’s General Assembly that day, the Queen suggested that although it is easy, with the benefit of hindsight, to read an American national destiny into the colonists’ fledgling efforts to establish their settlement, their success was hardly preordained.  She also noted that during her visit 50 years before, Americans had celebrated from the colonists’ perspectives but that “we are now in a position to reflect more candidly on the Jamestown legacy….Those early years in Jamestown, when three great civilisations came together for the first time—Western European, Native American and African—released a train of events which continues to have a profound social impact….”

The profound impact to which the Queen referred spans hundreds of years: of colonial policies imposed on indigenous peoples; of Africans forced into slavery; of subsequent American attitudes about race and difference; and of ways, both positive and negative, in which the intersections of many diverse cultural traditions have combined to transform one another and to create new American identities. Less obvious, but just as profound, is the impact—on all of us— of the ways in which our shared history has been constructed and understood.  Our stories about who we are have been based on Europeans’ ideas about the “New World” and their place in it. Until recently, they’ve rarely included perspectives of America’s first peoples, to whom this world was intimately known,or those of African-Americans, whose ancestors built most of Virginia’s early towns, universities, and plantations. Likewise, American history has often failed to incorporate the experiences of women; thus, the voices of more than 75 percent of the people who participated in our history have been left out. The situation is changing, however, allowing for a fuller understanding of our shared past and present.

We sometimes tend to idealize complicated political issues when we talk about diversity, and to generalize about complex identities. People can’t easily be lumped into boxes on a census form, because many of us represent multiple categories. And diversity is not an ideal—diversity is a fact. In both the United States and England, ethnic populations have changed as more immigrants arrive. The number of first-generation immigrants living in the United States has quadrupled in less than 40 years, from 9.6 million in 1970 to about 38 million in 2007, including large numbers from Mexico, India, the Philippines, and China. In England, the largest groups of people granted recent citizenship came from India, Pakistan, Somalia, and the Philippines.

In her 1991 visit to the U.S., Queen Elizabeth said, “Stability in our own countries depends on tolerance and understanding between different communities. Perhaps we can, together, build on our experience to spread the message we have learned at home to those regions where it has yet to be absorbed.” Her remarks underscorethe emergence, in the U.S. and England, of new ways of thinking about racial and cultural relations. So, we must ask ourselves, what have we learned? While we celebrate the accomplishments of tenacious settlers and “founding fathers,” we must acknowledge that the story of the United States begins with colonialism and the expansion of Western European empires at the expense of Native peoples and of Africans brought here against their will. In order to progress from colonialism to inclusion, we must honestly examine the ways in which people have treated one another and the long-term effects. We must agree to change the pattern of our past relationships, so that one group is no longer subjugating or marginalizing another. More important than discussions of apologies, we must agree to meet as equals. The accomplishments of America’s founding fathers have resonated over succeeding centuries because they were able to envision ideals that ultimately changed their communities. We will only succeed, ourselves, if we do likewise

In assessing the past, we must cautiously examine the stories we tell, the words we use, and the ways we make meaning, because those words are embedded so deeply in our minds, going as far back as our grade school educations. Few American or British citizens today would question the word “discovery,” for example, when applied to a narrative about the “New World.” We might imagine valiant explorers entering unknown lands, finding exotic creatures and locating resources. But the word is loaded with Eurocentric meaning, for how can someone “discover” a land that is already inhabited, an entire continent that is obviously the homeland of other people? An explorer plants a flag on a land formation and claims it for his king, invoking the “Doctrine of Discovery,” long considered the first principle of international law.

 That Doctrine emerged from a papal bull issued in 1452, in which Pope Nicholas V suggested that only Christian rulers could own land and that they were entitled to dispossess “pagans” because they believed their religion superior. It was codified by the U.S. Supreme Court in a series of decisions beginning in 1823. In 2009,it was repudiated by the American Episcopal Church, which descends from the Church of England. Today we would hardly accept such a doctrine in terms of human rights, and yet it remains the bedrock of American Indian law and of land tenure in the United States. Indigenous people rightly question such a notion. And what does it mean for the Church to repudiate the Doctrine? Whatever it means, the results will likely not include reparations to those whose homelands were appropriated hundreds of years ago. Will it change relationships between the Church and Native peoples?

Looking back to 1607, we would see a far different picture of Virginia than today, its lands and waters teeming with wildlife and plants, its geographies intimately known to Native peoples whose ancestral presence in the area dates back at least 18,000 years and whose systems of politics and culture developed long before Europeans arrived. We would see forms of representative government, because leaders maintained their power through acclamation—their followers were free to substitute another leader if they lost faith in their chief and advisors. We would see keepers of faith, tradition, and law—knowledge handed down through generations of careful oral transmission—and stable, organized societies like the Powhatan paramount chiefdom. We would see sophisticated traders and diplomats for whom a term like “free enterprise” would have no meaning: although leaders controlled surplus and tribute in societies like the Powhatan, there was no impetus to amass individual wealth, because alliances were forged through generosity and reciprocal relations.

The Powhatan tribes “discovered” 104 English men and boys straggling around on the swampy, mosquito-infested island now known as Jamestown.  Initially, they welcomed the strangers, or “tassentassas” in their Algonquian language, and showered them with gifts and food, likely hoping to create an alliance. One of their first acts was to exchange two boys, Namontack and Henry Spelman, so that each could live in the other’s community and learn the other’s language. Trade commenced, with the English bartering copper, tools, and beads for the corn that sustained them until the first major drought arrived, but interactions remained uneasy. Through a series of cultural misunderstandings, lies, thefts, and hostilities on both sides, the two groups quickly came to distrust one another. Each thought the other uncivilized and sought to bring the other under its control.

Clearly, their encounters continued only because Powhatan permitted it. He was the “mamanatowick” of more than 30 Indian towns and hamlets. A powerful religious figure as well as paramount chief, Powhatan was not exactly the “emperor” the English imagined him to be. We can only speculate as to why he allowed the blundering colonists to survive: some historians say he probably thought they would all starve to death, as they nearly did; others say he may have envisioned them as valuable additions to his domain. No doubt the behavior of Englishmen seemed as savage to Powhatan as the Indians’ did to the English, and he must have been alternately amused, bewildered, and frustrated by their efforts to impose English practices on American soil.

It could be argued that the subsequent experience of American Indians was inevitable. The Europeans’ superior numbers, along with the devastating effects of diseases to which Native peoples had no immunity, left indigenous survivors in an untenable position.  They could remain in their homelands, trying to adapt as their lifeways disappeared, or they could relocate, only to face identical choices again and again. Whether at the hands of the English in Virginia or Massachusetts, the Spanish in Florida or New Mexico, or the French in Québec, the outcome was essentially the same:  Indians were viewed as obstacles to European notions of progress, often as enemies to be eliminated. Some efforts were made to acculturate Indians to European ways, such as those at the Brafferton School at the College of William and Mary. These efforts largely failed, perhaps because they didn’t incorporate indigenous values or practices. Anthropologists call it “cultural imperialism”— the imposition of a dominant group’s ways and beliefs onto those of a different society— which they call “the other.”

One lasting effect of cultural imperialism in the case of American Indians is their eventual disappearance from history. We often begin the story of America in 1607, when the English arrived, rather than considering the thousands of years of Native peoples’ earlier presence and how profoundly their knowledge impacted all of Europe—how American Indian foods such as corn, potatoes, and tomatoes improved human health; the miracles wrought by their medicines; the utter transformation of European financial systems through the importation of gold and silver mined in the Americas by Spanish “explorers” exploiting Indian slaves. In the story we habitually tell, Indians appear in Virginia when the colonists arrive and then vanish or become “extinct” within a few decades; and yet many Native people remained in their homelands, endured discrimination and Jim Crow segregation laws along with other people of color, and are citizens of Virginia today. We speak of the three ”cultures” that encountered one another at Jamestown, and we list them—Europeans, American Indians, and Africans –not in order of their presence in this place but according to a different priority.

Another way in which Native people have been marginalized in history occurs through a language of simplification. Their towns and communities are referred to as “villages,” no matter how populated they were. Their stories are called “myths” and “legends,” and their scientific knowledge is called “survival skills” or “lore.” They have been portrayed as people in an earlier stage of evolution, and their cultures have been displayed in natural history museums, along with dinosaurs, insects, and rocks. These practices, combined, suggest that Indians are something less than human—less capable or less intelligent than Europeans—when in fact they have proven themselves ingenious in surviving the various forms of genocide, both physical and cultural, that occurred across the Western hemisphere since 1492.

In recent years, attention to indigenous peoples’ issues and histories has increased dramatically, resulting in a paradigm shift within history and anthropology that now includes the perspectives and expertise of Native peoples. This interest created U.S. federal legislation in the 1980s and 1990s to protect American Indian religious freedom, sacred objects, sites,and human remains, as well as establishing the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.  It has caused anthropologists and museum curators throughout the world to reexamine their methods, to include consultation with descendant groups about cultural objects and the way we write histories, and to confront the agendas of colonialism and move beyond them.  Times have changed. In 1907, the 300th anniversary of Jamestown was held in Norfolk because the original fort’s site was believed to have been swallowed by the James River. A major festival modeled after the 1893 Columbian Exposition and World’s Fair, it lasted for seven months. Virginia Indians were relegated to the “amusement area” and asked to reenact the story of Pocahontas saving John Smith, a story that scholars now believe never happened or was misinterpreted. Another attraction was a Wild West show reminiscent of Buffalo Bill’s.  Fifty-some years ago, at the 350th anniversary (which lasted eight months), more than a million attendees celebrated English heroism, as the Queen noted, and some Indians, imported from Cherokee, N.C., wore wigs. Several Rappahannock Indians worked in the recreated village called “Powhatan’s Lodge,” but tribes were not consulted in decision-making. In contrast, the 400th anniversary organizers were careful to include Virginia Indian tribes in planning the events, years before 2007 arrived. They agreed to change the title from “celebration” to “commemoration” when Indians pointed out that the arrival of the English did not result in anything they wished to celebrate. For the first time, Virginia Indians decided how to publicly interpret their ancestors’ roles. They organized a well-attended symposium on American Indian issues in Williamsburg and an intertribal festival in Hampton, inviting tribes from across the country to perform traditional dances and to educate the public about their different cultures. That event was attended by more than 18,000 people over two days. Public energy surrounding the commemorative events also led to the establishment of the Virginia Indian Heritage Program at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanitiesand to numerous collaborative projects with tribes, includingpublication of the Virginia Indian Heritage Trail guide, now in its third edition, with more than 100,000 copies distributed. Now that the commemoration has ended, we should again evaluate our “ideal” regarding cultural diversity. Have peoples’ attitudes toward one another changed? Have we moved closer to equal

One of the most important and enduring aspects of American Indian cultures is the concept of respect: for other people, for the sacred earth, for living creatures and plants that are considered to be the relatives of human beings. Indigenous peoples’ homelands are not merely locations from which to extract resources; they are the source of life itself for generations past and to come. Native people do not imagine “progress” as a linear, technological march from some archaic starting point to an undefined state of perfection: they see time as a series of cycles through which people reenact the same roles. Our purpose as humans is to maintain balance and harmony within the natural world. We achieve this by cultivating “right” relationships and a healthy state of mind. That being said, how do we interact with a cultural ethic that values profit and political power above sustaining our lands, waters, and the diversity of life forms around us? Would Powhatan or Captain John Smith be pleased to see what Virginia has become? What have we all learned, indeed?


Published on June 15th, 2012.

Última actualización: 28/06/2018