Why did the Native Americans Feed the Colonists?

Maize was a food staple for the Native Americans who lived in the Tide Water region. Spender, David. Amazing Maize. 2009. Winchester Cathedral Fine Food & Wine Show. Web.

Maize was a food staple for the Native Americans who lived in the Tide Water region.
Spender, David. Amazing Maize. 2009. Winchester Cathedral Fine Food & Wine Show. Web.

    The early colonists struggled with day to day survival yet they grew to thrive, with the help of the Powhatan. That the Powhatan gave the early colonists food is almost undisputed, however the reasons for such an action is not a cut and dry answer. The natives might have helped the colonists because they were showing the power they had over the colonists, they expected the colonists to return the gesture or they might have pitied the colonists. Regardless of the reasoning behind it their decision to help is an interesting one and due to the lack of first person accounts from Native Americans we will probably never know the true reasons behind this decision.

   Amidst the variety of possible explanations, one of the most likely is that Powhatan provided the colonists with food in order to demonstrate his power.  It could be that Powhatan was saying that he controlled if they could live or not. This idea is supported by the fact that Wahunsenacawh “[sent] gifts of maize and other provisions at opportune moments” (Gallivan, 89). The idea that this might have been a power play was further suggested by the proposal that if the colonists moved their colony and provided him with hatchets and copper, then he would protect the colonists and feed them. (Gallivan, 89-90). Any argument for this would not be made by the documents left by the colonists as for the most part the colonists did not view the Native Americans as being advanced enough to think themselves above the colonists (regardless of the fact that the natives had a much higher survival rate than the survival rate of the colonists). As such, even if this was the case the Europeans missed this nuisance in the intercultural relations between settlers and natives.

The second idea that holds some merit is that the Native Americans expected the colonists to reciprocate the gesture. This idea was explained quite simply as “give, give, give now you give, give, give.” (Katy Titus, during a seminar, 2014). This explanation might hold true as the Native Americans were used to giving gifts but as such also expected to receive gifts in return. For example in his book Facing East from Indian country, Daniel Richter draws from Smith’s memoir, “‘Your king gave me nothing,’ Uttamatomakkin complained to Smith after an audience with James I that inexplicably included none of the gifts that any chief worthy of the name should have bestowed to display his power and largesse.” (Richter, 78).  This very well could have been a reason as culture discrepancies often cause actions to look completely different from how they are intended to appear. This also plays back to the previously stated reason of these gifts being a power play and the Europeans misunderstanding the natives’ motives.

This photo is an image of the James River as it looks today. As you can see this water is obviously unclean due to the color, and floating stream of foam. The James River, Off the Side of a Ferry in the James River. Personal photograph by Miranda Masters. 2014.

This photo is an image of the James River as it looks today. As you can see this water is obviously unclean due to the color, and floating stream of foam.
The James River, Off the Side of a Ferry in the James River. Personal photograph by Miranda Masters. 2014.

Another valid (although slightly more unlikely reason), might be that the Native Americans simply felt bad for the colonists. This is completely reasonable as the colonists did not know how to survive and actually hurt their own already dismal chances at survival because they “drank foul water and couldn’t feed themselves.” (Horwitz, 23). Although the colonists had no clue the to the natives it probably appeared as if the fact the James river is non-potable was blatantly obvious (as the water does not look drinkable). Since the colonists were having these problems it is quite possible that the Natives felt bad for the settlers who were sabotaging themselves out of blatant ignorance and easily remedied stupidity also struggle with horribly tragic illness and death, so the natives gave them food to try to help them to survive. The fact that the colonists were (at least in part) sabotaging themselves is that they had some many sicknesses run rampant that the Native Americans did not. If this was the reason for aid though the colonists might never have realized because they would never deign to have considered needing help from those that they considered savages and as such to be the lowest of the low if even human.

Finally, there are at least three quite plausible reasons for why the Native Americans gave the colonists food. These reasons include that: they might have been using the food as a power play, culturally the gift of food might be seen more as a gesture of goodwill or faith, that the colonists were expected to reciprocate, the Native Americans might have just felt bad for the colonists or some combination of all three. For instance the Native Americans might have felt bad for the colonists and meant the food in a we have all the power type of way. Regardless of the reason the colonists would never have survived without the food provided by the Native Americans and as such all American citizens owe the Native Americans of the contact period a debt and none of us would be here in this program without them, much less would this country have existed, nor would this school even exist. This debt to the Natives is part of the reason why it is so necessary to look at their side of this story. Even though they left no written records, their part should be examined from more than just the prospective of the white well educated male. Their have been many attempts to accomplish just this and yet there is still much further to go. As such no matter the reason for the Native Americans providing food to the colonists they did and we will never know what the true reason for them providing food was and we most likely never will.

 

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