A Study of Virginia Indians and Jamestown: The First Century
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Danielle Moretti-Langholtz

"We were part of the original Virginia Tribes at the time of the settling of Jamestown. What we are interested in and would like the general public to know is a lot of the true historyÉand not to stereotype us as savage IndiansÉbut what the real history was and how it really happened." Chief Barry Bass, the Nansemond Indian Tribe (the Virginia Indian Oral History Project at the College of William & Mary.)

With the approach of the four-hundredth anniversary of the first permanent English-speaking settlement at Jamestown, Virginia the National Park Service funded this study of an in-depth examination of the primary documents, and significant events relating to Virginia's Native peoples and their interactions with and responses to the colonial encounter. This project is unique in its attempt to incorporate the views of tribal leaders and tribal members along with the research of numerous authors from the disciplines of anthropology and history. The research produced from this study will be used by the National Park Service to better understand and interpret Virginia Indians as a cultural group within the historical and natural landscape as well as assist planners with the development of exhibits and interpretive presentations at Jamestown Island. The study includes recommendations for future research and additional considerations for building stronger relationships with Virginia's indigenous community.

During 2003 and 2004 documentary research was conducted in support of the Virginia Indian-NPS study. Additionally, interviews with Virginia Indian tribal leaders and tribal members were conducted during which the documents pertinent to Virginia Indian history during the first century of contact were shared with those individuals willing to participate. The focus of the study is two-fold. Firstly, to gather and review primary source documents pertaining to Virginia's indigenous tribes during the seventeenth century. Secondly, to obtain Native commentary on those sources to more fully incorporate the Virginia Indian perspective into this most important century of Anglo-Indian interaction and change.

Where possible the triangulation of primary documents, archaeology and oral history is combined in such a way as to bring a Native perspective to what has been primarily a non-Native narrative of historical events. Secondary sources are not ignored but the emphasis is on the collection of and presentation of primary source documents or summaries and abstracts of colonial documents. However, none of these sources alone or in combination can be identified as a complete description of Powhatan ethnohistory. Rather these documents may be used in conjunction with archaeology, oral history and Native commentary to begin the reconstruction of seventeenth-century Powhatan ethnohistory.

It must be noted that all of the primary source documents pertaining to Virginia Indians were written and created by non-Natives. The primary source documents are important to both the contemporary Native and non-Native communities because of their rarity and undisputed historical value. However, these same seventeenth-century documents express the biases and views of newcomers to the continent and as such they pose some insurmountable limitations when employed to describe the Native world during the first century of contact in Virginia. Thus Native people express a certain degree of ambivalence about these documents. Complete descriptions and analyses of Native culture and lifeways by the English would have been impossible due to linguistic barriers and the fragmentary understanding of Native cosmology and priestly power are evident. An additional weakness of this early commentary is that the English would not have been privy to the internal discussions that would of necessity have taken place among tribal leaders as the indigenous community structured its response to the English settlement at Jamestown. Moreover, the presentation of the history of the settlement of Jamestown is typically focused on the journey, arrival and struggle of Europeans in a "New Land" rather than with the discussion of the invasion of long-lived Native communities by a contingent of males (104 men and boys) within their territory of Tsenacomacah. The intentions of the English with regard to the settlement may have initially been viewed with uncertainty, but within a year or two the onslaught of English settlers to the Powhatan homeland left little doubt in the minds of Native people that they were in struggle for control of their land, culture and their very existence as a people.

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Last Updated: 22-Nov-2006