Out of Jamestown’s Shad­ows

Va. In­di­ans Emerge from Grim His­tory To Stake Claim in An­niver­sary Fan­fare

The Washington Post Sunday - - Metro - co By Brigid Schulte

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.

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