Out of Jamestown’s Shadows
Va. Indians Emerge from Grim History To Stake Claim in Anniversary Fanfare
John Smith and the English colonists sailed up a river they dubbed the James in 1607 and saw a vast, empty wilderness, nothing but “faire meddowes and goodly tall Trees.” The New World.
Just out of view, beyond the banks of the river, people were watching warily. They called the same river the Powhatan in their Algonquian language. They called the land Tsenacomoco, “our place.” To them, it was a world of bustling villages and thriving crops. Dugout canoes hewn by fire and clamshells and big enough for 40 warriors plied the rivers that ran like fingers through the coastal plain. Winter hunting camps dotted the edges of the mountains.
Today, to the untrained eye, all that remains of the Powhatan people are names on a map, such as Rappahannock and Potomac (Patawomeck), and words, such as raccoon and opossum, for the strange New World animals that did not exist in the English lexicon. By the time Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House in 1865, there wasn’t even a memory of the Appamattuck people who gave it its name.
But Virginia’s remaining Indians, out of view for so long, are emerging from the isolation and fear of discrimination that kept them hidden for centuries. For many, the hoopla over Jamestown’s 400th
anniversary, instead of an event to be shunned for signaling the beginning of their end, is something to embrace. What better way to be “rediscovered?”
Powhatan Red Cloud Owen, a member of the Chickahominy tribe and a Jamestown events planner, remembers being dressed in full regalia as part of the opening ceremonies in 2004 for the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington. A Kiowa standing next to him turned and asked where he was from. “Virginia,” Owen remembers answering. “No, where are your people from?” the questioner persisted. “Virginia. We’re the Chickahominy.” “Never heard of them.” “Well, we’re here. We never left.” In fact, the 1,200-acre Pamunkey and 125-acre Mattaponi reservations in King William County are among the oldest in the country, dating to a treaty with England in 1677. To this day, the tribes pay an annual tribute of deer and fowl to the governor of Virginia in keeping with the treaty.
In the 1980s, the state officially recognized these and six other tribes, the Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Rappahannock, Nansemond, Upper Mattaponi and Monacan nations. The latter six are petitioning Congress to become federally recognized, sovereign nations, like the Navajo, Sioux and Cherokee. Their bill has passed a House committee and is headed for a floor vote.
The tribes are hoping to use the Jamestown anniversary to further their cause. They demanded that the “celebration” be renamed a “commemoration.” They adopted a slogan, “First to Welcome, Last to be Recognized.” And before agreeing to participate, the tribes procured letters of support for federal recognition from Jamestown organizers.
“People are not going to care about us this much again for another 400 years,” said Karenne Wood, a Monacan and past chair of the Virginia Council on Indians. “We have to work quickly.”
So Virginia Indians will be performing native dances and drumming for Queen Elizabeth II. And native artisans will be throwing pots, carving wooden flutes and stringing intricate beadwork at the Jamestown festivities.
“We want our story to be told,” said Steve Adkins, chief of the Chickahominy who serves on the official Jamestown commission. “And we want to be the ones to tell it.”
In the 1907 Jamestown exposition, the Indian section was relegated to the amusement area, a la Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, with an invitation to “Put on Your Warpaint.”
At the 1957 celebration, a couple of Indians were hired to wear Mohawk wigs. No one seemed to know that Powhatan men shaved the right side of their heads, so as not to get hair tangled in their bows, and wore their hair long and tied in a knot on the left.
This time, Virginia Indians sit on panels responsible for planning the events. They have held symposiums and given lectures on their histories. They have edited scripts, getting National Geographic to issue a disclaimer on a video that John Smith did not “discover” the Indians.
They have made sure that tribal flags are included in every processional. They have worked with the tourism industry to create a Virginia Indian Heritage Trail and have helped develop curricula about Virginia Indian history.
“We told them, ‘You can’t just approach us and ask us to ride on a float and wave,’ ” Wood said.
This is part of the story that Wood wants to see in Virginia textbooks:
When John Smith arrived, the Powhatan weren’t a bunch of naked savages awaiting civilizing, as the English thought. They were already civilized, Wood said. They were part of a complex society with established trade patterns, cultivated land and a political structure. They thought the Earth was circular and flat, like a plate, and that Tsenacomoco was at its center. In a good year, there were five seasons. And the god they worshiped, Okeus, was fearsome and severe.
More than 15,000 people from 30 tribes were ruled by a man named Wahunsunacock. He had more than 100 wives. His subjects paid him 80 percent of what they grew or hunted every year. And he expected his warriors to be fierce. Boys practiced target shooting every morning. If their arrows missed, they got no breakfast.
The English called him Powhatan, the name he took as chief.
One tribe had been warned by their priests that one day, a people would come from under the world to take it away. Powhatan had also been advised by his priests that a people would rise up from the east and overthrow his empire. He thought they meant the Chesapeake tribe — and he wiped it out in a day.
The prophecies were quickly fulfilled. By 1646, the Virginia General Assembly wrote that the once mighty Powhatan were “so routed and dispersed that they are no longer a nation.”
Powhatan’s younger brother and heir, Opechancanough, led raids in 1622 and 1644 that killed hundreds of English, hardening English hearts against a people they once called “the naturals.”
The Powhatan became “these beasts,” and “rooting them out for being longer a people upon the face of the Earth” became the official policy. The English set up reservations and, by 1722, declared the majority extinct. Their language died.
These days, about the only thing Americans know about the Powhatan is the highly idealized story of Pocahontas, one of Powhatan’s daughters. Legend has it that she saved John Smith’s life, became a Christian, married an Englishman and died young in England.
So many of Virginia’s leading families have claimed the Indian “princess” as an ancestor that officials wrote a “Pocahontas” exception for those with 1⁄ In-
16 dian blood into segregationist laws that defined what it meant to be white.
Those same laws forbade anyone else in Virginia from declaring themselves an Indian. To do so was punishable by a year in jail.
On a recent day, the sun set on the Pamunkey River, turning pink the unbroken marshland across the water.
Jeff Brown, a Pamunkey Indian, comes in from an evening of shad fishing. The fuss about Jamestown has brought a host of the curious to the reservation, where most of the land is leased to local farmers and most of the 75 or so residents leave every day for jobs elsewhere. Brown works for Comcast. So strange to have center stage, he says. But so good to finally have a voice.
“A Japanese camera crew was out here the other day. They asked me, ‘How do you feel about the immigrant?’ At first, I thought he was talking about Mexicans,” Brown said, laughing. “But he had a point. We were here before the English. And we’re still here. Living on the little piece of heaven we have left.”
Pocahontas, a daughter of Chief Powhatan, is memorialized in a Jamestown statue. Many Virginians claim to be descended from her.
Carl Lone Eagle Custalow, left, Mattaponi Indian chief, presents the tribe’s traditional annual offering in November to Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and first lady Anne Holton.
Jeff Brown, a Pamunkey Indian, says that the high-profile Jamestown anniversary festivities have helped give voice to Virginia’s tribes.