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Our Complex Anniversary

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It's safe to assume that when the English came ashore in the place we now call Virginia in the spring of 1607, Chief Powhatan was not surprised. He would have known about earlier European attempts at settlement in the Mid-Atlantic, and the arrival of a "people from the East" had been foretold to him years before.

Powhatan was smart; he was prudent, and concerned about this invasion, probably from the first. The English were well-armed, aggressive, and obviously in no rush to leave. It's easy to imagine his curiosity, mixed with heavy dollops of amusement and even disdain for these noisy, ill-prepared, and misplaced foreigners. But it's still a wonder that he spared the blustering John Smith--prophecy or no prophecy—and allowed the Jamestown colonists to live through their first winter in Virginia.

We can only guess the reasons why. But if Powhatan hadn't permitted it, Smith and his companions would almost surely never have emerged from the shadows of starvation and failure in the early years, or succeeded in establishing their fledgling colony, which to the Indians must have seemed as frail and tenuous as a hatchling sparrow. What if it was really Powhatan's strength and imagination, more than Smith's—the native people's forbearance, even more than the settlers' tenacity and resourcefulness—that ultimately ensured Jamestown's survival? Should we honor Powhatan among the founders of Virginia?

The "New World" may have been new to the English. But it wasn't new to Powhatan, or to the Mattaponi, the Pamunkey, the Nansemond, the Rappahannock, and the other tribes that comprised his paramount chiefdom. It wasn't new to the Monacan, the Chickahominy, the Saponi, the Meherrin, the Occaneechi, or the Patawomeck—to the 50,000 or more Native people living within the present-day boundaries of Virginia at the time the English arrived. And it wasn't new to millions of other Indians, who by 1607 had formed complex, stable societies—keepers of faith, tradition, law, and vividly expressive cultures—from the Arctic Circle to Cape Horn.

Virginia's 400-year history is a complex web of stories, illustrious and painful. The Virginia Declaration of Rights was written here, but so were the infamous Racial Integrity laws that effectively denied Indian people and others in the state the right to claim their own identity.

The Bill of Rights, drafted by Virginians, has inspired people and nations throughout the world to assert the rights of individuals and place limits on the powers of government. But for many decades, African-Americans and Indians in the state were systematically denied their most basic rights and opportunities under Jim Crow segregation.

Within every chapter and page of the state's history, from the most inspiring to the most shameful, there are stories of survival, adaptation, persistence, creativity and achievement that deserve to be told, and told again in new ways.

2007 is an opportunity, among other things, to take full accounting of the "Virginia Experiment." It's an opportunity for all Virginians, and for those who will visit the state, to understand the forces Jamestown set in motion, what Virginia has become, and why. It's an opportunity to celebrate what is good and at the same time to acknowledge what's been lost, sacrificed, and forfeited, and by whom.

The histories of Virginia's Indian communities are significant in their own right; they are also essential, irreplaceable tributaries of the larger story of Virginia. This was true decades, even centuries before 2007, and it will remain true long after the observance of 2007 is past.

We are fortunate that portions of Virginia's Indian history and heritage are still accessible to all of us, through the resources that are included in the Virginia Indian Heritage Trail. We are even more fortunate that Virginia Indians are, in fact, still here, still able and willing to tell their own stories; that their cultures are living and changing but still firmly intact, like trees with new foliage and thousand-year-old root systems.

All of us are richer because of this. S



The Indians of Virginia have endured centuries of historical omission, exclusion and misrepresentation of their history, including the impact of laws that for a time denied even the existence of Indian people in the state. There has been, for example, no designated trail tourists could follow to learn abou tthe tribes' history.

For more than two decades, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities has worked with Virginia Indian tribes and inter-tribal organizations, supporting their efforts to tell their own stories and to ensure that Indian perspectives on the shared history of the commonwealth are not marginal, but part of the mainstream In May, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities published the first edition of The Virginia Indian Heritage Trail, in cooperation with the Virginia Council on Indians and Virginia's eight state-recognized tribes.




This essay is adapted from "The Virginia Indian Heritage Trail." David Bearinger is director of grants and public programs at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.



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