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Indians in Virginia: A Good Place to Start

Posted By Brendan Wolfe, Managing Editor, Encyclopedia Virginia, Monday, November 23, 2015

Originally Published:November 4, 2015 by Brendan Wolfe

It’s Native American Heritage Month, set no doubt to coincide with the increased attention paid to Indians for their role in the traditional Thanksgiving narrative. (Which, according to this muckety-muck, is a Virginia narrative first.) As such, this is not always the best environment to learn about Virginia Indians, who don’t fit neatly into many of our assumptions and stereotypes. That’s why we want to call special attention to the Virginia Indian content in Encyclopedia Virginia.

Start with our overview entry on Indians in Virginia, which will give you an idea of the breadth and scope of our content. You’ll find archaeological, sociological, political, and biographical entries, stuff on Jamestown-era Indians, the usual Pocahontas and Powhatan stories, but also twentieth-century Indians. There’s nothing else quite like it on the web or even in print—this sort of wide-ranging, connected, up-to-date, and authoritative content on a subject such as Virginia Indians.

Just yesterday I was showing off our overview entry to some teachers in Richmond and one asked, quite reasonably, how we know what we know about Virginia Indians and how we can trust it. The Sources section of the entry tackles that tricky but important question. Much of what we know comes from English sources—the image above for instance, which is a Belgian engraving done from an English painting of an Indian in North Carolina, a painting that contains much eye-witness information filtered through, as you can tell by the pose, for instance, classical influences.

In other words, when dealing with sources like this image it’s tough to know for sure what we know and don’t know and how much to trust it. But that’s history.

As I’ve written before“History is not what’s true, but what we argue is true.”

IMAGE: Aliquot Heroum Virginiae Notae (The Marks of Some of the Leading Men of Virginia), engraving by Theodor de Bry from a painting by John White, ca. 1590 (The Mariners’ Museum)

 

INDIANS IN VIRGINIA

This overview entry provides an avenue into our many in-depth entries on Virginia Indians and includes links to primary documents, images of artifacts, and a short audio clip of an expert interview.

 

CACTUS HILL

This archaeological site in Sussex County provides surprising information about the earliest people to live in Virginia. Who were they? How did they get here? Our entry provides an accessible summary of the latest scholarship.

 

DON LUIS DE VELASCO / PAQUIQUINEO

Paquiquineo was one of the most fascinating and mysterious figures in Virginia history. Picked up by the Spanish in 1561, he spent the next nine years in Spain and Mexico, studying with Dominicans and then Jesuits. What happened upon his return in 1570 is the subject of continued controversy.

 

TSENACOMOCO

Tsenacomoco is the Algonquian name for what has been called the Powhatan paramount chiefdom (and sometimes the Powhatan confederacy). Our entry explains how the alliance was formed and how, ultimately, it fell apart.

 

LANGUAGES AND INTERPRETERS IN EARLY VIRGINIA INDIAN SOCIETY

This entry identifies the three main languages that Virginia Indians spoke at the time of the Jamestown settlement and explains how language played an important role in Anglo-Powhatan relations.

 

POWHATAN and POCAHONTAS

Our biographical entries shed historical light on a father and daughter otherwise lost to myth.

 

OPECHANCANOUGH

Powhatan’s brother (or near kinsman), Opechancanough was one of the most important Virginia Indians of his day. He captured John Smith and led attacks against the English in 1622 and 1644 before his death in 1646.

 

FIRST and SECOND ANGLO-POWHATAN WARS

In these two wars, fought 1609–1614 and 1622–1632, Virginia Indians fought the encroaching Englishmen. And while the Indians did not win, neither were they completely conquered.

 

POLITICS, RELIGION, DIET, COOKING, and SHELTER

Our many in-depth entries on Virginia Indian culture investigate the daily lives of Virginia natives: how they organized themselves politically, how they practiced religion, what they ate, and even the houses inside of which they slept.

 

MONACAN INDIAN NATION

This is one of several entries we have on individual tribes. The Monacan Indians spoke a Siouan language and lived—continue to live—in the Piedmont. The tribe received state recognition in 1989.

 

RACIAL INTEGRITY LAWS

To understand where Virginia’s Indians are today, it’s necessary to understand the way in which their identities were politically erased, especially in the 1920s. This entry gives a thorough overview of several laws passed in the 1920s that sought to divide Virginia between black and white, and leaving Indians out entirely.

 

“A DICTIONARIE OF THE INDIAN LANGUAGE” BY WILLIAM STRACHEY (1612)

This is a primary document by the English clerk, writer, and historian William Strachey, who studied the Virginia Indians of Tsenacomoco and created a list of words from their language.

 

THE HUSKANAW RITUAL BY ROBERT BEVERLEY (1722)

This is a primary document in which the historian Robert Beverley describes the  mysterious huskanaw ritual by which Virginia Indian boys—sometimes violently—were transformed into men.

 

LETTER FROM JOHN ROLFE TO SIR THOMAS DALE (1614)

In this primary document, the colonist John Rolfe asks the Virginia deputy governor for permission to marry Pocahontas.

 

TREATY ENDING THE THIRD ANGLO-POWHATAN WAR (1646)

In this primary document, the General Assembly approves the terms of a treaty that brings most Virginia Indians under English control and in some cases removes them to reservations.

 

INDIANS AND THE RACIAL INTEGRITY ACT OF 1924

This audio interview features scholars and Virginia Indians talking about how the Racial Integrity Act worked to erase Indian cultural identity.

 

PAMUNKEY POTTERY

This image shows a terra-cotta plate and bowl and a blackware vase by Pamunkey Indian artists.

 

 

Reprinted with permission from Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

Tags:  Virginia Foundation for the Humanities  Virginia History  Virginia Indians  Virginia museums 

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