Chawnzmit, or That Sounds PC to Me!

When I talk to people about Helen C. Rountree’s book (which I mentioned earlier this week) telling the story of Jamestown from the Indian perspective, I’ve noticed an almost instinctive skepticism. Nobody has come right out and said that sounds like PC b.s., but they haven’t needed to. The whole idea—which includes referring to the English not as colonists but as Tassantassas, or Strangers, and one of their leaders as Chawnzmit, as the Indians might have heard his name—just sounds so kooky! Rountree must be an Indian herself, some have suggested, although she informs her readers in the first sentence of her preface that she is not.
I can’t always understand the defensiveness involved in this response, but I do get why the Indian perspective is so critical. My edition of the state history textbook Virginia: History, Government, Geography was published in 1964, which is not that long ago in the scheme of things. And on page 31, that book has this to say about Virginia Indians:

War was the only method the Indians knew to settle disputes between tribes. Disputes over hunting grounds usually caused wars. The Indians believed in the swift surprise attack. They seldom showed their enemies mercy and they did not expect to receive any. They frequently tortured or burned to death prisoners who fell into their hands. We must remember that the Virginia Indians were still in the Stone Age at the time the settlers came to Jamestown. And we must not forget that Powhatan and the people of his land had not yet learned the teachings of Christianity.
In spite of his cruelty, the Indian had many good qualities that we must admire. He was, as a rule, capable of being a faithful friend; he was usually brave and self-controlled; he could bear pain silently and stoically. The Indian was a proud man. It was because of his great pride that he seldom forgave anyone who insulted or injured him.

Which is why, perhaps, many Virginia Indians may not yet have forgiven the Commonwealth for so recently inflicting such instruction on its students.
IMAGE: A detail from “C. Smith taketh the King of Pamavnkee prisoner, 1608.” Engraved by Robert Vaughan for John Smith’s Generall Historie (1624).


2 thoughts

  1. Brendan, I am enjoying these posts tremendously. They are doing nothing but stoke the keen fascination I have with pre-Columbian America. I immediately checked out Rountree’s book and have begun reading it. Whether all the conclusions are accurate or not; whether they are disproved by further study; whether they make people mad — the perspective has been sorely lacking in both social and academic discourse, and I welcome it. Many thanks for all that your team is doing.

  2. Thanks, Winston. You point to one of the most interesting things about Helen’s book that I haven’t mentioned: a lot of her conclusions may in fact be wrong! I can’t speak for her, of course, but I suspect that she would be the first to agree. That’s the nature of this kind of scholarship and the point of that post we did about John Smith and baseball. To understand anything about this period — but especially to understand the Indians’ perspective — one has to do a lot of reading between the lines and making informed guesses.
    Those guesses will always be subject to revision over time, but I suspect that a lot of the questions will never be resolved.


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