Powhatan's World and Colonial Virginia: A Conflict of Cultures

By Fausz, J. Frederick | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Autumn 1997 | Go to article overview
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Powhatan's World and Colonial Virginia: A Conflict of Cultures


Fausz, J. Frederick, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Powhatan's World and Colonial Virginia: A Conflict of Cultures. By FREDERIC W. GLEACH. Studies in the Anthropology of North American Indians. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press in cooperation with the American Indian Studies Research Institute, Bloomington, Indiana, 1997. ix, 241 pp. $55.00.

IN the last two decades, the first generation of Virginia ethnohistorians has successfully refuted the colonial "cant of conquest" and challenged the traditional, blatantly biased half histories that long ignored or vilified the Powhatans. The most rewarding result of this new historiography has been the integration of Indians into mainstream interpretations, based on detailed documentation of their critical, often decisive, roles in watershed events.

A young anthropologist, Frederic W. Gleach, now charges that those revisionists are in need of revising, because of their "flawed Euro-American constructions" (p. 200) and "biases that have continued to haunt ethnohistorical studies of the Powhatans" (p. 2). Seeking "a more objective treatment" (p. 2) with bicultural balance and "open-mindedness" (p. 201), Gleach analyzes complex, ancient Powhatan beliefs and uses them to reinterpret selective, familiar encounters with Europeans, from the Spanish Jesuit mission in 1570 to the aftermath of Bacon's Rebellion. His extensive ethnographic knowledge makes him sensitive to the nuances of eastern Algonquian life ways and world views, which buttress his speculations about the leadership of the Powhatans and their "aesthetic of warfare" (p. 47). Fine training and good intentions, however, are more than offset by research and writing so flawed as to border on academic dishonesty. This slim volume certainly projects the pretensions of legitimate revisionism, but many of its key arguments are made to seem plausible only because of the heavyhanded manipulation (usually by omission) of critical facts and vital sources to the contrary.

Powhatan's World may be the first postmodernist book on early Virginia; it may not herald a new generation of rerevisionism, but it is definitely antiheroic, confrontational, even a bit nihilistic, located on the far fringe where ethnic divisiveness flourishes and every group embraces a different name for the same event. Everything seems turned on its head, as when Gleach writes: "The fact that the Powhatans were not accorded humane treatment in the early years of the colony suggests that the English considered them no serious potential threat, and perhaps somewhat less than human" (p. 87). Gleach does not want to "valorize the violence" of the era (p. 5) or accord victim status to anyone, especially butchered babies on both sides, and the result is a chilling absence of emotion, empathy, or common humanity across centuries and cultures.

The Powhatans never seem real or particularly influential, nor are they designed to be, for Gleach's agenda focuses less on presenting a cohesive, compelling, chronological story about seventeenth-century people than on critiquing the contemporary ethnohistorians who have written about them. In declaring that "the modern view of Indians as engaged in valiant but vain efforts to defend their cultures against European invaders is no more accurate than the earlier notion of Christian soldiers fighting against pagan savages to bring God to the New World" (p. 200), Gleach signals his intent to attack the pioneering revisionists, because they have already disposed of the "Christian soldiers" and are the only logical target left to deal with. Thus, Powhatan's World ironically becomes a long, contentious, highly technical ethnohistoriographical diatribe in which Western scholar-specialists are pitted against each other in arcane arguments about the interpretation of events for long-dead Indian generations. The denunciation of colleagues is Gleach's organizing principle, which results in disjointed, repetitious chapters on various controversies about headline events and pages rendered almost unreadable by innumerable in-text citations.

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