May 08, 2007

Indians at Jamestown, then and now

Local Indians fight for role in celebration

People of the Powhatan River remind whites they were in Jamestown before the EnglishIn 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.
What people should know: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.
What people do know: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 1/16 Indian blood into segregationist laws that defined what it meant to be white.
Comment:  These days, most people get their knowledge of the Powhatan Indians from Disney's Pocahontas, of course.

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