A Study of Virginia Indians and Jamestown: The First Century
NPS Logo


Danielle Mortti-Langholtz

"If the story of our people is going to be told it needs to come from us." Chief Barry Bass, of the Nansemond Tribe. (July 2004)

1. Of importance to contemporary tribal leaders and tribal members is an exploration and discussion of pre-contact history in order to emphasize and establish the length of time that the ancestors of the Virginia Indians resided in the tidewater region. It is recommended that the presentation of Native history at the Colonial National Historical Park site at Jamestown begin with the pre-contact history of Virginia's indigenous people and include an overview of archaeological information to establish the occupational sequence and lifeways of the indigenous peoples living in the Jamestown area. In other words the Native communities would like the story to begin with the pre-contact history of Virginia's indigenous population.

2. Descendant populations are interested in most current research regarding the rise of the Powhatan Chiefdom and to a larger degree the function and complexities of this Algonquian polity. It is recommended that data and information obtained from recent archaeological excavations at the site of Werowocomoco, the primary residence of the paramount chief on Purton Bay, be included in didactic panels and exhibits at Jamestown. An effort should be made to examine that ways groups living at the two sites (Werowocomoco and Jamestown) interacted with each other during the initial years following the settlement at Jamestown.

3. Tribal leaders and tribal members interviewed for this project agreed that the story of European contact should be placed in the context of the larger Atlantic World and begin with proto-historic contact in the Chesapeake Bay between Native and non-Natives. The Spanish settlement at Ajacan and the implications of the events surrounding the interactions between the Spanish and the Powhatan Indians should be discussed prior to the presentation of the establishment of James Fort by the English in 1607. It is recommended that archival research be conducted in Spanish archives and other European archives (including the Netherlands) to widen the contact-era history to include more than just the English story. A focus on early trading relationships and by Virginia's Native people to Europe prior to 1607 would add to a more complete picture of this early period.

4. Interpretation and representation of Virginia Indian history and the events connected with interactions between Indians and settlers at Jamestown should be a cooperative venture that includes Native perspectives with those of non-Native scholars. However, this can only be accomplished with care and after building a sense of trust among the National Park Service, the current eight state-recognized tribes, supra-tribal organizations such as the Virginia Council on Indians, and the wider Native community in the state and the nation. Issues pertaining to federal recognition should be resolved between federal government agencies and those tribes seeking federal recognition in Virginia. Moreover, a partnership with the Native community will require a sustained effort on the part of the National Park Service and its employees but over time will be worth the effort. The Native community in Virginia feels that they have been excluded for the past four centuries from presenting their version of history. Museums and historic sites must make the descendant community feel welcome at their institutions and give tribal historians a real voice in the presentation of history. Tribal leaders are apprehensive about museum policies. They have concerns about decisions that will take place if tribal communities disagree with the interpretations of academics and museum professions about the presentation of historical and cultural materials. Tribal communities are reluctant to enter into joint project with museums because they feel their recommendations will be ignored. Many Native people expressed frustration saying, "Why should we tell give our stories away when we will not be respected anyway." Tribal leaders also feel that their history has been co-opted by historians and museum professionals who make a living presenting aspects of Native history to the general public and to one another. One example of this is the way that the story of Pocahontas has been incorporated almost exclusively into non-Native historical traditions. Issues surrounding ownership of history and control of the presentation of history are mentioned frequently in discussions with Native people about history and museum interpretation. Efforts to create new exhibits for the commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the settlement at Jamestown have brought these issues and feelings to the forefront of the Native communities in Virginia. Tribal leaders have concerns that their oral history and Native commentary will not be valued by professional historians and interpreters. Tribal communities need reassurances that their histories and experiences will be respected. If joint projects are proposed tribal leaders want to have their roles and responsibilities clearly defined. This includes having an understanding regarding the type and amount of authority tribal communities will have with any joint projects with the National Park Service and other similar institutions. It is recommended that parameters of such projects should be worked out in advance as well as making an effort to build a positive relationship with the Virginia Indian community before and after such partnerships are established.

5. Efforts should be made to bring tribal leaders "behind the scenes" of the National Park System to demystify the operations of the Colonial National Historical Park. This should include giving tours of the collections areas so that tribal members may view the artifacts, and archival materials. It is recommended that workshops for tribal members (adults and children) be held at Jamestown during which people may re-connect with the material culture of their ancestors in a direct manner. Such workshops should be closed to the general public. There may be a series of workshops...possibly entitled "Native People Return to Jamestown" where tribal members may look at the objects and comment about the objects to the collections staff. Native commentary should be made part of the archival collection. Another workshop may be arranged for Native artists to obtain inspiration for contemporary artwork from the historic pieces. The long range goal should be to make members of the Virginia Indian community feel comfortable and welcome at Jamestown—a location important to their history as well as the history of non-Native people.

6. The primary documents from the colonial encounter are written by non-Natives and contain the biases of the newcomers. Nevertheless these records make it possible to present a more balanced interpretation of the impact of European settlement on the indigenous population as seen in this report. It is recommended that copies of original documents pertaining to the Virginia Indians, such as Acts of Assembly, treaties, land patents, petitions by tribal leaders, etc., be reproduced and used in exhibits along with contemporary comments from tribal members. This would emphasize the impact of colonization to the general public and demonstrate the continuity of the descendant communities in Virginia. Issues of land loss and culture loss are of primary interest to the Native community. Historical interpretation should emphasize the dislocation of Native people and environmental change in the post-colonial world.

7. Research for this report was conducted in the seventeenth century court records of Charles City, Surry, Isle of Wight, and York Counties for entries pertaining to Indians. Sometimes "Indians" are not listed in the indices of various source books but information is included in the books. Therefore, it is recommended that more extensive research in these counties be conducted as well as expanded to include Henrico, Elizabeth City, counties on the Eastern Shore, etc., to gather more data about the lives of Native people in seventeenth century Virginia.

8. It is recommended that an outreach be made by the National Park Service toward tribes with tribal museums and with tribes who may wish to establish tribal museums to develop partnerships with one another. This outreach may include establishing a dialogue about maintaining collections, and issues related to museum operations. It is recommended that National Park Service partnerships with tribal museums include workshops about creating exhibits and caring for collections. An additional goal may be to jointly create and share traveling exhibits among partnering institutions.

9. It is recommended that the Colonial National Historical Park convene a meeting with interested tribal leaders, tribal councils, members of the Virginia Council on Indians, and NPS staff to discuss the data in the report. Special emphasis should be placed upon the Native Time Line/Chronology and the charts with entries from the court documents. It is recommended that the NPS ask for input from the Native community for ways to utilize the data contained in this report and to seek direction regarding future research efforts.

10. Tribal leaders and tribal members feel that the research on Indian slavery is overlooked and under represented in literature and exhibits on the seventeenth century. Virginia Indian slavery included groups being deported to the Caribbean, women and children held as slaves and as servants in the homes of the colonists and slavery practiced among the Native Americans. The introduction of Native slaves from the Caribbean to the region should also be researched. It is recommended that the National Park Service take a leading role in compiling data on the topic of Virginia Indian slavery and in sharing this information with Native communities and the general public.

11. Native people reacted quickly to the geopolitical changes that resulted from the establishment of the settlement at Jamestown. While significant land loss and demographic collapse occurred within two generations after English settlement in 1607 Native people did not disappear from the landscape. The struggle to survive was not just the struggle of European settlers but also was the struggle of the Native community to survive intact after the changes wrought by European colonization. It is recommended that the interpretive plan for the new museum at the Colonial Historical National Park place an emphasis on the continuity of Native people in the Commonwealth of Virginia and remind visitors that descendants of Virginia's First Peoples live among us to this day.

<<< Previous <<< Contents >>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 22-Nov-2006