Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough: Three Indian Lives Changed by Jamestown • Helen C. Rountree • Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005 • xii, 292 pp. • $29.95
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Reviewed by Alexander B. Haskell, NEH Fellow at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. He is revising for publication his 2005 dissertation, "'The Affections of the People': Ideology and the Politics of State-Building in Colonial Virginia, 1607–1754."
As the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown approaches, promising to make 2007 a year of commemorations and fresh scholarly assessments of such familiar historical actors and events as Captain John Smith and the settlement of Virginia, it is an open and altogether pressing question how Native Americans will fit in the festivities. The story of 1607 simply registers differently depending on whether we see it through early modern English or Native American eyes. For this reason, and because the stakes are so high, we are deeply indebted to Helen Rountree for this timely book. On one level a biography of the three Powhatan Indians most familiar to us from the story of Jamestown's founding—Pocahontas; her father, the "paramount chief" Powhatan; and his relation and most prominent successor, Opechancanough—it is also nothing less than an effort to understand that story from a Native American perspective.
Rountree is unusually well qualified to undertake this endeavor. One of the most active and influential of the several talented scholars working today to interpret the histories of Native Americans in Virginia, she brings to the book a wealth of understanding about seventeenth-century Powhatan culture. Although she has written the book with a lively narrative structure and personable prose designed to appeal to a general audience, scholars and lay readers alike will appreciate the extensive knowledge and careful reasoning that underlie her interpretations.
The greatest strength of the book is the care with which Rountree has set out to retell the story of Jamestown from the point of view of seventeenth-century Powhatan Indians. This is by no means a straightforward endeavor, and to her considerable credit Rountree is perfectly candid about the strategies she has employed not only to interpret the behaviors and perceptions of her subjects plausibly but also to put the reader in "a native-centered frame of mind" (p. 5). For instance, to overcome the obvious limitations of her sources, which because the Powhatan lacked a written language must consist almost entirely of the records of English settlers, she rigorously tests every observation in those writings against other forms of evidence, including ones derived from archaeology, as well as against her own knowledge of contemporary Powhatan culture. Likewise, to help readers see the Jamestown experience as much as possible through Powhatan eyes, she plays "tricks with language" (p. 5). She drops words like "English" and "colonist," which she recognizes are intrinsically value-laden for most modern Americans while being virtually meaningless for her Native American subjects, and uses instead terms that the Powhatan might have used, like tassantassa, or stranger. Similarly, she refers only to Indians as people, and reserves the term "Real People" specifically for the Powhatans, in order to convey the ethnocentrism that was as common in Native American as in European culture. Even European dates are eschewed in favor of the Powhatans' own vocabulary of seasons linked to different forms of food getting.
All of these manipulations might feel overly contrived in hands less competent than Rountree's. Instead, they work. As Rountree leads us chronologically through the period from the eve of English settlement in 1607 to the death of Opechancanough (and the final gasp of marked Powhatan resistance) in 1646, we sense that we really are getting the other side of the story. In particular, the three main subjects of the book all begin to emerge—Powhatan and Openchancanough from their relative obscurity, and Pocahontas from the myths that have surrounded her since at least the nineteenth century. Just in time for 2007, they appear with all of the complexity of character and motivation that the history books have typically reserved for only a few of the "strangers" like Smith.