Helen Rountree’s book Pocahontas, Powhatan and Opechancanough: Three Indian Lives Changed by Jamestown retells the tale of Jamestown from the perspective of the Indians – the objective of this is to determine the effect of European settlers in America from those who lived there. Over the course of this book, their story is told – many blanks have to be filled in, however, as the Powhatan Indians do not have a written language. This leaves the responsibility of the information gathered to fall to the Jamestown English; Rountree does the best to keep the book objective, but “such sources of information obviously cannot be taken at face value”.1 Despite this, the blatant differences between Indian and Western cultures are accurately detailed, as well as the feeling of claustrophobia that the Powhatans felt due to the Jamestown colony being settled.
The most important characters in the book are, obviously, the triumvirate of Pocahontas and her father Powhatan, as well as Opechancanough, his successor. From their perspective, the reader learns more about how the early settlers interacted with the Indians of that time. Pocahontas’ unique status as a chief’s daughter, yet not a true heir, lent her a special kind of authority in European eyes that was not present with the Powhatans (since Europeans did not understand the idea of a chief’s daughter not being an heir). The role of women carried a higher authority among the Powhatans as well; “foragers came in both sexes, because the work of both sexes was a necessity for survival”.2 Given their higher priority on staying alive, all members of the Powhatan community were required to do their part, unlike the English who “believed women were ‘weak’ and therefore ‘inferior’.3
Another unique difference in the power structure between Europeans and Pwhatans as detailed in the book is the chiefly duties of Powhatan (and Opechancanough), which when compared to a king, were menial and equal to those of his men. He “was proud of knowing how to do all the things that lower-status men did, such as making moccasins. Knowledge of that sort would have been spurned as degrading by European royalty of the time”.4 This outlines a distinct difference in how the leader views the work of those he rules, and informs his interactions between Powhatans and Europeans. The role of a chief regarding religion was something that the Europeans rejected – “The Powhatan religion was not well recorded by the evangelistic English”.5 The use of temples as military and economic centers, as opposed to strict religious centers, is something else that helped to baffle the Europeans and create further divisions and barriers to effective communication between these cultures.
The differences in culture and economy are stressed by Rountree early on; instead of the market economy that the Europeans were so used to, the Indians happily shared a “’mixed economy’ of foraging and farming” that would often frustrate and confuse the Europeans.6 Because of the constantly moving, nomadic nature of the Powhatan work life, Europeans would not find people where they expected them to, making it difficult to form a rapport. This could have potentially led to the poor relations they would have with the natives; a lack of understanding of their different cultures is what led to the constant struggle for territory and respect among each of these peoples.
One interesting component of the tale is just how ethnocentric the Powhatan Indians are as well, being just as discriminatory and dismissive of the Europeans as they are of them. This is conveyed through the use of the words “Real People” to refer to just the Powhatans, whereas words are used that the Powhatan could have feasibly employed to describe the Europeans, like tassantassa (stranger). This sets the tale more firmly in the arena of the Powhatan’s perspective, as they would naturally favor themselves over the European invaders, and this is reflected in Rountree’s writing.
In conclusion, the significant differences in the two cultures are delineated clearly by Rountree’s research, demonstrating that the two cultures were not only too different, but perhaps not accommodating enough to accept each other’s culture for what it was. From the Powhatan perspective, as described in the book, it is certainly true that they viewed the Europeans with contempt, not seeing them as real people. Their customs regarding women and work, as well as the traditions of royalty, were so far removed from their own ideas, making it difficult to find a common ground. This, then, led to many of the problems that they encountered, and the subsequent hostilities that would erupt between them.
Rountree, Helen C.. Pocahontas Powhatan Opechancanough: three Indian lives changed by Jamestown. Charlottesville: University Of Virginia Press, 2005.