American Indians See Opportunity in Jamestown Anniversary

By Stephen Kaufman
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington – Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America, was founded not in the wilderness of legend but rather in the midst of a thriving agricultural community. The small fort on Virginia’s James River had as its neighbors at least 14,000 individuals and nearly 30 tribes comprising the Powhatan Confederation, in a land the natives called “Tsenacommacah,” Algonquian for “densely inhabited land.”

In light of their later treatment by European settlers, modern-day American Indians in Virginia might be expected to resent the activities surrounding the 400th anniversary of Jamestown’s founding, but many in the native community are embracing the opportunity to direct popular attention beyond the romanticized tales of John Smith and Pocahontas. They are sharing their story to promote a more realistic understanding of the complex society the first English colonists encountered, and explain how the American Indian tribes have managed, despite extreme hardship, to maintain their identities.

“Everybody understands the gravity of this moment and the fact that it’s absolutely necessary for them to use this time to educate the public about who they are, and who they were, and what happened in between,” said Gabrielle Tayac, an expert in the native peoples of the Chesapeake Bay region and a member of the Piscataway tribe in Maryland.

Tayac said Virginia’s tribal community became involved in the planning of the anniversary early on, by sending a representative to the commission planning commemorative activities and organizing educational conferences and teacher training activities. A delegation of Virginia’s remaining eight tribes also made a historic visit to England in July 2006.  (See related article.)

“I think we are past the point of silence about what happened and I think we’re also finding … more and more sectors of people involved in history and in the public who want to know what the native side of the story is,” she said, adding “that was not true 20 to 30 years ago.”

Looking back to Jamestown’s 300th anniversary in 1907, Tayac said native participation, if any actually occurred, was “just decorative,” and “there was no interest whatsoever in looking at it as anything other than celebratory.”

One hundred years later, Jamestown is under much closer scrutiny, not only as the first permanent English presence in North America, but for the 1619 introduction of African slavery to the continent and its effect on the native population.

“I think it’s the mark of a much more mature and intelligent society today that we can look at this in its full meaning, and I think that is just as instructive, or way more so, than just having a big party,” Tayac said.

She added that the Virginia tribes themselves are very thoughtful and articulate about the significance of the moment.  “I think we’re really at the point of breakthrough in the conversations we can have about this and what the meanings are for what life is going to be for native people for the future.”

Tayac, who is curator of an exhibit on the Virginia and Maryland tribes at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, said the museum is helping to overcome “very powerful stereotypes” of American Indians held by the wider American and international publics, based on the writings of early English settlers as well as Hollywood films.

“It’s not that people have no knowledge, it’s that they have the wrong knowledge or misperception. … You have to break that down first and give them information closer to reality,” she said.

Tayac said she wants people to realize that “with native people in the region, the history didn’t end in 1607,” and their presence continues today despite the loss of life and land, intermarriage and assimilation, and Virginia race laws that prevented the state’s tribes from identifying themselves as American Indians until as recently as 1967.

The dialogue between native and non-native peoples is “not just looking back at where we were and what happened to us, but using that as a point to look at and get public attention to what needs to happen more at this point,” she said.

Tayac also wants educators to take a hard look at the curriculum in U.S. schools and incorporate not only the American Indian point of view, but also the results of more recent historical scholarship, including archaeological excavations of native sites.

She said she hopes that future American schoolchildren will consider figures like Powhatan chief Wahunsunacock, or his brother and successor Opechancanough, “as just as much of a founder [of the United States] as John Smith,” and that they will view the natives of the Chesapeake region as “intelligent, thinking, tremendously intellectual people who were on this landscape, who had civilizations that had a population worthy of respect.”

Now, 400 years after Jamestown, Virginia’s American Indians are tremendously proud of their identity and are hoping for wider acknowledgement, she said.  At the same time, they are proud of their U.S. patriotism and for their participation in the building of the country, including military service, and participation in community churches.

“You would intuitively feel like this would be the time for people to want to reject that, and it’s actually a time when people are wanting to embrace it more and want other people to embrace them for it,” Tayac said.

More information on Virginia's native tribes is available on a Web site of the Virginia Council on Indians. Additional information on Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian is available on its Web site.