As American Indian Month kicks off Friday, local historians are providing valuable research and perspectives to the scholarly conversation surrounding the culture.
“It’s really hard to understand the history of any country without understanding the cultures that are a part of it,” said Jamie Helmick, volunteer services manager for Jamestown Settlement. “The native culture is the basis of [the country]; no matter what culture you feel you’re apart of today, you’re still influenced by other cultures.”
Helmick said Jamestown Settlement has been working for years to delve further into the history of local native cultures, but there are challenges in this research that might not be present with other cultures.
Most of the research done is based on English and European accounts of native people, which provide a sense of bias because of their relationship to Native Americans. While those accounts provide important information, they don’t necessarily create the full and rich perspective the cultures deserve.
“It’s obviously a lot harder to recreate native culture than any other culture because of that bias,” she said. “Sometimes it is a trial and error of making [an artifact] and trying to figure it out from [native] perspective, so we use qualifiers, we say we ‘think’ something is a certain way.”
Helmick said there are areas of research that use “experimental archaeology” where historians might have an English description of an artifact and look at how other cultures in a particular area, such as the East Coast, created and used the particular item. This context helps researchers better understand certain aspects of culture.
But Helmick said while historians compare with various tribes in a region, it is important to teach visitors to the settlement about the specific and important cultural differences. She said for years, native education tended to generalize the culture but in reality each region and tribe varied greatly.
“It’s important to have an overview of what it’s all based on,” she said. “Some people over-generalize Native American culture and it’s like looking at a Europe and saying it’s all European instead of French, German…We want to make people understand it’s a rich and vibrant culture with a lot of differences.”
To do so, local historic areas handle the topic differently. At Jamestown Settlement, Helmick said the various events try to focus on different themes. For example, during the Settlement’s annual pow wow this year, there was a focus on female Native Americans and their dress, traditions and stories.
In addition, the Settlement also has a new exhibit that features Werowocomoco, Virginia’s original “capital” city and Powhatan residence, who was the chief for approximately 30 tribes in Virginia’s coastal region.
“We do tend to focus our different cultural themes during different periods so we can try to touch on a lot of different parts of the culture,” Helmick said. “But we also listen to what visitors want to learn about by looking at visitor surveys and paying attention to feedback.”
On Saturday, Historic Jamestowne will host a variety of events to celebrate American Indian Month. The day will feature interactive activities as well as the debut of the new walking tour “The World of Pocahontas.”
The new tour will start at 2 p.m. and look at Virginia Indians’ resistance to the English in 1607 and the legacies that have survived.
Other events include a look into the material culture and life-ways of local Native Americans from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., an interpretation on trade between English and Native Americans from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and the opportunity to view the World of Pocahontas Unearthed Exhibit from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
At Jamestown Settlement, Helmick said research is always continuing to spread education about the native culture and to learn what might’ve previously been misunderstood.
“A new area of our permanent gallery opening that will focus on Pocahontas and the misconceptions around her,” Helmick said. “That’s another big part of our educational mission is to address 400 years of myths and stereotypes [and] to address why these are wrong.”