Missing Links and Empty Fields: Native Virginian History of the Contact Period

American history has a reputation for being whitewashed.  As the expression goes: history is written by the victors.  And in our society that means upper-class, white, straight, men.  The history of other groups tends not to be taught unless in a specialty class (e.g. LGBT/black/women’s studies) and if it is taught in mainstream history it is minimally and through a lens of privilege.

This is especially true in the case of Native Americans during the period of early European colonization.  Because many had no written language to record their own history, their stories and past are at the mercy of modern historians to interpret, leading them to be largely devalued in favor of better recorded European history.  Though much has been lost to us after nearly four centuries of ignoring half the story, it is not impossible to understand the Native American perspective on early colonial history.  That being said, to do so we must be willing to let go of many of our accepted historical constructs.

Daniel Richter writes that there are really only three Native Americans “whose stories have been told repeatedly since [the contact period]” (Richter,2).  Those are Kateri Tekakwitha, a Roman Catholic convert and candidate for sainthood, “King Philip”, who “inspired a bloody war against Puritan New England” , and of course, Pocahontas (Richter,2).

It seems from this description that for the most part the Native Americans who left their mark on mainstream history were mostly those who conformed to European measures of good, evil, and piety.  Only Native Americans who the colonists deemed important from their standpoint stood the test of time, while others who may have been just as-if not more-important to their people are forgotten.  It would be as if the only European that was remembered from that time was John Smith, and only in so much as he affected Native American society.  That would hardly be a good measure of English culture at the time.

Pocahontas, is the poster child for Euro-centric simplification of Native American culture.  Not only was she adopted by Disney and magically transformed into a full figured, conventionally attractive Barbie doll,

On the left: Disney's Pocahontas.  On the right: A contemporary portrait.

On the left: Disney’s Pocahontas ©Disney,1995. On the right: A  portrait copied from the original etching by  Simon van de Passe.  Portrait by Gareth Eckely




she has also become something of an American folk hero.  Many Virginia  whites claim relation to Pocahontas and-to a lesser extent-her (second)  husband, John Rolfe (Horowitz, 349).  Being related to a Pocahontas arguably makes one part of the oldest family in Virginia, and in a society that prizes genealogy, that is paramount.

Stranger still are the groups like the  “Degree of Pocahontas” who take love of the so called “princess” to the next  level, dressing in full tribal regalia and attending mock-Native ceremonies.    “[They] participated in parades and other civic events, the men wearing war  bonnets and buckskins, the women clad in deerskin dresses and headbands”  (Horowitz, 351).  This and other fetishization of Native American culture by  white Americans is increasingly popular even in these supposedly politically  correct times.  The photo on the right is one example of many “sexy Indian”  costumes one can buy at any Halloween store.


“Pow wow princess” as sold by costumesinc.com

Unsurprisingly, actual Native Virginia tribes seem less enthused about the Pocahontas-mania.  Tony Horowitz interviewed Melanie Wright, a Creek Indian from Georgia, who was of the opinion that “[Pocahontas] was drawn to Jamestown to collect beads and other trinkets.  [She] also must have enjoyed the doting attention of the English, who had no girls among them” (Horowitz, 354).  Horowitz also talked with Warren Cook, a Pumunkey Indian and community leader, who said, “Pocahontas was an exceptional young woman…but she got carried away with the English”  This is a relatively positive view of Pocahontas compared to some who call her a traitor to her people.  However, most Native Americans don’t seem to have an opinion on her one way or another.  “Mostly … we’re just tired of hearing about her all the time” he explained, “instead of figures more representative of our people” (Horowitz, 357).  These more cynical views of Pocahontas are the result of a century of having whites use Pocahontas as the incarnate form of Native American people.

While this may seem like a little thing, whites wanting to embrace Native American culture, and local tribes being over-sensitive, cultural appropriation is in fact a huge problem.  When we reduce complex cultures to caricatures for white people’s amusement, we lose much of what makes them unique.  Not only that but the stereotypes we form can lead to whites, and therefore mainstream culture, marginalizing them.  The modern day treatment of native tribes is still lacking in many ways, with high rates of unemployment, school dropouts, and suicides; yet society is doping relatively little about it, partially, perhaps, because people do not take them seriously.  Native Americans were not homogenous, fringe wearing, red people.  And if we lose that knowledge, we cannot hope to understand their history.

That being said, it’s all well and good to say how things ought to be done, but how can we, as modern historians analyze Native American culture without our western historical constructs getting in the way?  According to archeologist Dave Brown, the best way to interpret any historical artifact is to simplify.  Take it for what it is, not what you think it is.  If you begin to theorize about it right off the bat, that is where our inherent biases begin to creep in.

In his article on the Powhatan capital of Werowocomoco, Martin Gallivan deals with this by looking at the spaces these people inhabited; “shifting the focus of inquiry away from English colonial narratives and toward a history of landscape” (Gallivan, 85).  This way of analyzing the past may seem dry.  After all, part of the appeal of history is the human element.  But before we can begin to tackle the complexities of Native American cultures, we need to go back to the basics.  Inanimate objects don’t lie, not if you look at them correctly.  In the absence of written histories, we must make due with “built spaces, conceptual landscapes, and spatial practices” (Gallivan, 85).  According to Dave Brown, it is not recorded history that gives us the greatest amount if knowledge, but the combination of important sites and the landscapes around them.  He demonstrated this at Werowocomoco when he explained how archeologists know very little about why, for example, there are long ditches running along the site, and that though there are many theories that hold merit, a good theory is not a fact and so, all we can say for sure is that there are ditches.

But all of this leads to one central, philosophical question: can we ever achieve a truly objective history?  In all honesty: probably not.  Even by choosing what to investigate we allow inherent biases to creep in.  Perception itself is shaped by culture and personal experiences and so we will never look at the period of early colonization and see it exactly as how it was.  However, we can and should get a more well-rounded and balanced perspective.  It is the only way to more fully understand where we came from and where we are going.  If we can look past our preconceived notions of colonial history, and let go of our Euro-centric interpretations of the past, and of course, work with surviving tribes, it is entirely possible to get an idea of the Native American experience.

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