Friday, May 28, 2021



The Overlooked Opechancanough: An Indigenous Hero

Interestingly, his inherited domain included Arlington Cemetery, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and a number of military establishments in the DMV. Yet, because American history only begins with the arrival of the English in 1607, he, as a formidable Indigenous leader is the true "Unknown Warrior" who was the primary leader to die for his country in the first battles of homeland security

(Above): This is an image of a Pamunkey descendant of Opechancanough and how he may have appeared wearing the traditional turkey feather headdress, freshwater pearls and symbolic body paint. He was the Algonquian leader (who succeeded his late brother Powhatan II or 
Wahunsennachaw) of a vast "empire" (The only one of its kind encountered by the English). The Powhatan Paramountcy, whose territory included large areas in the states of North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia-- Like his older brother, he would have also visited Capitol Hill in Washington, DC to caucus with surrounding nations.

  "He began in 1610 what the American Revolutionaries achieved in 1776"

Iwould seem that this man should be the first Native American to be called a hero and given those deserved rights and privileges, like the Civil Rights heroine, Rosa Parks.
Opechancanough was the architect of the First Anglo-Powhatan War that took place from 1610-13 in Virginia.
Never one to claim defeat as long as he lived, he rebounded with the Second Anglo-Powhatan War that took place from 1622-32. "In 1622 the English knew they were at war. On March 22 there was a massive [coordinated] assault on the English plantations on the James River. English trading vessels in the York River basin, and perhaps the Rappahannock area, were also attacked. About one-fourth of the English living in Virginia on that day; at least another fourth died within the year from Indian sniping, from the famine caused by English inability to plant crops under Indian fire."-- Powhatan Foreign Relations: 1500 - 1722, Edited by Helen C. Rountree, Pg. 190.

During the Third Anglo-Powhatan War (1644-46), Opechancanough, bercause of his advanced age (of 92 years old), was taken to the battlefront on a litter. He was later captured and martyred when shot in the back by an English colonist while imprisoned.

His descendants are Still Here!

Opechancanough's Descendants

(Top): Photograph of one of the youngest descendants of Opechancanough who bears his name, Naat'aani Opechan. He is with his Dine (Navajo) mother. Next to her is a non-Native Cake Boss, Buddy Valastro. Naat'aani's Pamunkey/Tauxenent father is on the right. In Dine, Naat'aani means "Leader". 

(Bottom): Family wisdom keeper and great-grandmother, Georgia Mills Jessup (Pamunkey), is just one of the many descendants of Opechancanough.

In reality the territorial and cultural histories of the United States of America began at Jamestown, Virginia in 1607, with the establishment of the first successful permanent English settlement in North America. The American Revolution and Opechancanough's Wars share a similar quest, to rid the fledgling country of the English. The people who became "Americans" (through acculturation) were distinct from the English and had done so by first "going Native" and surviving off Powhatan II's generosity. During those early years, the English survived by trading or stealing Powhatan corn since they did not grow enough crops to feed themselves. The English were more interested in growing "brown gold" (tobacco) which was traded overseas as a major cash crop. Pocahontas' second husband, John Rolfe, previously had introduced a milder Taino tobacco to the American colony. The indigenous Caribbean Amerindian cash crop helped to finance the American Revolution. Americans became distinct from their colonial master, the English, by adopting Native American lifestyles and customs. For example, "historians, including Donald Grinde of the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York, have claimed that the democratic ideals of the Gayanashagowa [the Great Law of Peace of the Iroquois] provided a significant inspiration to Benjamin Franklin, James Madison and other framers of the United States Constitution"-- It seems fitting that the first hero of this pivotal founding of a country was the Native American, and a man named Opechcancanough (pronounced in English as Opi-can-canoe).

(Top): !980's photograph of Powhatan's Mantle viewed at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, England by Rose Powhatan (Pamunkey/Tauxenent)

(Bottom): Photo of the mantle showing a man between his two totems, a mountain lion and a deer. Surrounding them are circles representing 32-34 Algonquian nations in what the English termed a "kingdom", approximately between 18,700 to 19,250 square miles.

We should make a commemorative statue to the American hero Opechancanough who was a  younger brother of  paramount chief Wahunsenacawh  (Powhatan II, the statesman who expanded the confederation of 8 Algonquian nations into one of 34 before he was 60 years old). As seen above, Opechancanough was  primarily known as the  nationalist war chief who masterminded the inter-tribal Indian rebellion  of 1622, and later 1644, until he was assassinated while held in captivity by  the English colonists in  Virginia in 1646. There are many theories about the true identity of Opechancanough as well as his rationale for instigating the ingeniously coordinated Virginia Indian rebellions. 

Some believe that Opechancanough may have been the captured Indian youth, initially taken to Mexico, where he was baptized and given the name "Don Luís" and educated by the Dominicans. He was later taken to Spain. During his two years in Spain, he met King Phillip II. While he was in Spain, he was generally assumed to be "the son of a Chief". He eventually left Spain for Havana, Cuba, in the company of Dominican missionaries. Don Luis carried on the Powhatan tradition of being a great speaker, and seems to have mastered the art of persuasion. He convinced the Dominicans to return with him to his homeland, under the pretense of helping them in their quest to "Christianize" his fellow tribesmen. Phillip II wanted to establish a missionary settlement in the Tidewater region of Virginia (then known as "Ajacan"). Some historians believe that Opechancanough was that unnamed captive, and his experiences among the Spanish may have influenced his deep distrust of European settlers in the "New World". He must have known that their plans for colonization would result in the cultural annihilation and displacement of his people by the Europeans.

The above caption under the illustration exhibits the writer's (Rountree) misgivings. First, the English concept of royalty allowed them to recognize "kings" and "queens" among the Native American leadership, especially because of the expanse of Powhatan II's territory. Second, Algonquians, who the 17th century English met, were considered to be extremely tall (e.g. Powhatan II was described as over six feet tall). In comparison, the average height of late 16th century Englishmen was 5 feet 6 inches.


Another theory about Opechancanough's distrust of Europeans can be found in the writing of John Smith. Smith boasted of having shamed the well-respected leader by holding a pistol to his breast while marching him in front of his assembled tribesmen. Smith, as seen in his memoirs of the Pocahontas Story (Pocahontas: Patron Saint of Colonial Miscegenation? by Kiros Auld --, tended to exaggerate his power and stature. The Pamunkey warriors laid aside their weapons in an attempt to save the life of Opechancanough, not out of cowardice, but in solidarity of their love for him. Opechancanough was shown an egregious lack of respect by John Smith -- ibid

On March 22nd, some Eastern Woodlands Native Americans, in the know, will quietly celebrate Opechancanough's strategic attempts to rid his territory of the increasing number of English interlopers. Why not join Virginia Natives by including in your meal for that day, turkey or venison (or any Virginia game animal, i.e. raccoon, muskrat, etc.), plus vegetarian succotash and corn bread or pone (two Powhatan Algonquian words). Or, as a learning assignment, you may want to practice a few of their following American words:
"In addition to other current Algonquian dialects and dictionaries, the Powhatan's language is not dead. Algonquian is the language of the first indigenous Americans to intimately interact with the English. Their words below survive in the English language as Caucus -- from corcas. from caucauasu or "counselor". First recorded by Captain John Smith. Today, it is a political meeting, especially on Powhatan II's old territory where, according to an English chronicler, he liked to caucus with surrounding tribes (on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC) to make decisions. 

Opechancanough's descendants are Still Here!



Some of the Powhatan Algonquian words below survive in the English language as Caucus -- from corcas. from caucauasu or “counselor,” and was first recorded by Captain John Smith.  According to an English chronicler, he liked to caucus with surrounding tribes on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC to make decisions. The chronicler also stated that "Powhatan never left his territory"; Chipmunk -- from chitmunk. Hominy -- corn; Honk-- from is from cohonk, the source of honk, honkey (or honkie), honky-tonk, from the cohonk, a noisy Canadian goose. It is associated with the sound made by the bird, or associated with winter or a year. The Powhatans called the "Potomac" River, called Cohonkarutan, "the River of the Cohonks" for the noise made by the yearly arrival of the geese there; Match coat -- from matchcores, skins or garment; Maypop -- from mahcawq, a vine with purple and white flowers that has an edible yellow fruit; Moccasin -- from mohkussin, a shoe; Muskrat -- from mussascns; Opossum -- also possum, from aposoum, or "white beast"; Papoose -- an infant or young child; Pecan -- a nut, from paccan; Persimmon -- a fruit; Poke weed -- from pak, or pakon, blood + weed; Pone (Corn Pone) -- from apan, "baked". Powwow -- from pawwaw, an Algonquian medicine man. A dance ceremony used to invoke divine aid in hunting, battle, or against disease. Now used as a Pan-Indian word for a social dance festival; Racoon -- from aroughcun; Susquehanna -- from suckahanna, water; Squaw --  from Werowansqua, a female chief associated now with a derogatory term for an Indian woman or a vagina, now obsolete; Terrapin -- a turtle, from toolepeiwa; Tomahawk -- from tamahaac, tamohake, a weapon. From temah- (to cut off by tool) + aakan (a noun suffix); Tump (tump line) -- a strap or string hung across the forehead or chest to support a load carried on the back. -- "

1 comment:

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