Southern Cultures 12.2 (2006) 94-95
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Helen Rountree knows more than anyone else about the Native Americans of eastern Virginia, and if anyone can write a history of the encounter between them and the English at Jamestown from their point of view, it is she. A recently retired member of the faculty of Old Dominion University at Norfolk, Virginia, Rountree has spent most of her life in Powhatan country, researching the history and publishing many books and articles, associating with the descendants of Powhatan people, and teaching the history of Powhatan's chiefdom to thousands of students. What makes her special, though, is her talent as an ethnohistorian.
Rountree was trained as a cultural anthropologist. Cultural anthropologists do research for the books they write by living among, interviewing, and observing the daily lives of the people they are studying. Rountree conducted such field research in the Native American communities of eastern Virginia, but the only places where she could study their forebears were in libraries and archives. This forced her to do the kind of research in the written record that historians do. Combining the ethnologist's focus on culture with the analytical and interpretive techniques of the historian creates a scholarly methodology called ethnohistory. It is a methodology that has proven to be particularly useful in doing Native American history because it enables talented and careful scholars to use the documents of outsiders to write a kind of insider's history.
A real insider's history of the Native Americans of Tidewater Virginia in the early seventeenth century is, of course, impossible. But a skilled ethnohistorian can reconstruct enough of the culture of seventeenth-century Native Americans in Virginia to make sense of the biased and ethnocentric descriptions written by the English of what they saw but failed to understand. When she uses culture as [End Page 94] a category of analysis, Rountree the ethnohistorian can explain the actions of Native American people better than the observers could.
As her title suggests, Rountree organized her book around the lives of the three best known citizens of Tsenacomoco, the name the Native Americans gave to their country—Pocahontas, Powhatan, and Opechancanough. Pocahontas needs no introduction; Powhatan, the ruler of Tsenacomoco, is almost as well known, but Opechancanough, Powhatan's brother and inheritor of his rank and title in the chiefdom, is less familiar. Together, their lives span the half-century of building the chiefdom prior to the arrival of the English and end in 1646 at the conclusion of the second great assault launched by the English against Virginia. Rountree tells this story from the perspective of the Native Americans, focusing on the three central figures when the documentary evidence permits and filling in the gaps with her deep understanding of the history when the record is silent.
Rountree spends her first three chapters describing in marvelous detail how the Native Americans made their living in eastern Virginia and discussing their social and political culture. In chapter four she explains the creation of the chiefdom, the polity ruled by Powhatan. A hereditary leader of great power, he used force, the threat of force, diplomacy, and the promise of security to assemble together under his authority more than thirty Tidewater tribes. The next five chapters detail Powhatan's delicate policy toward the Tassantassas, or strangers, after they established Jamestown in 1607. Eager to acquire all the knowledge he could about them, he sent his men to watch and report and both to harass them and trade with them. He also ordered that stragglers be picked up and interrogated. When John Smith fell into his hands, he negotiated an important but short lived alliance with them. In this discussion Rountree debunks the myth of Pocahontas saving Smith's life as he was about to have his head beat in. Being a female child, Rountree argues, Pocahontas would have been off working with the women, not participating in...