FROM THE BOOK: THE PEOPLE WHO STAYED: Southeastern Indian Writing After the Removal)
© 1999 by Rose Powhatan
The author at the Pocahontas statue in 1995, Gravesend,
Rose Powhatan (Pamunkey/ Tauxenent/Dogue) is a member of the Pamunkey Tribe of Virginia via her mother’s family and Assistant to the Chief of theTauxenents (Dogues) via her father’s family. A teacher for more than thirty years both in the Washington, D.C. Area and the United Kingdom. She is an elder in theInter-tribal Women's Circle of Virginia; the American Indian Society of Washington, DC; a prominent artist, tribal historian, curriculum writer and storyteller; who has had many exhibits of her work throughout the United States and England. She holds B.F.A.(cum lade) and M.A. degrees from Howard University. She has done extensive graduate work in history, humanities, education and administration at universities in the USA and the UK. Powhatan has served on numerous boards, including the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs, American Association of Museums, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and is a member of the American Indianan Society of Washington, D.C. She has published articles in journals and newspapers, such as The Sun (Baltimore), Kent Today (Gravesend, Danford, England), The London Times, and The Washington Post. Her film credits include: Cultural Consultant on the movie and role as a clan mother in "The New World"; Acting in the role of Crispus Attucks' Natick Indian mother in the HBO mini series, "John Adams"; She has appeared in a number of film documentaries including one by the Jamestown Settlement Park on the Powhatan Confederacy. She is currently featured along with one of her totems in an exhibit on the "Tauxenent Indians" of Fairfax County at the Riverbend Park, Great Falls, Virginia.
Here I am, at 3:30 A.M., the day before the deadline for submitting this story, and the very morning of the first family reunion of my father’s family that’s not a funeral. (Although I was enrolled as a member of the Pamunkey Indian Nation of King William County, Virginia, by my late cousin Chief William “Swift Eagle” Miles, through my mother, my father’s family is one of two families historically documented as “Indian” indigenous to Fairfax County.) I still can’t decide what to write about in relation to what it’s like to be officially recognized as an Indian outside the indigenous community thanks to a cartoon movie about my ancestors.
Document genocide regulates your relationship to others with whom you interact on a daily basis. It’s not easy to be upbeat about your tribal identity when most people around you constantly remind you that you are not supposed to exist. Even well-intentioned librarians are smug in their knowing responses to my requests for information about Indians indigenous to my tribe’s ancestral home region. They tell me that my ancestors became extinct through contact with European and African germs. When I identify myself as an enrolled Pamunkey Indian, they act sanctimonious and try to correct me. They tell me I must be a Cherokee or a Blackfoot. I’m told that I’m extinct, since all Indians indigenous to the Washington, D.C., Maryland, and northern Virginia region became extinct “hundreds of years ago.” “Government Indians” who have come to Washington to work at the
Bureau of Indian Affairs and other federal agencies play the same game with me. Why, they even form social clubs and perpetuate information about the people in the “official” organization mission statements. Supposedly, the main reason for starting such organizations is because, in their view, “there were no Indians in the region” despite the fact that many members of one such organization have repeatedly been shown hospitality by Virginia tribes, invited to enjoy the amenities of the reservations (the Pamunkey and Mattaponi reservations, the two oldest in the United States.)
New Indian arrivals in my home area constantly inform me that “back on the rez” they have been told that there are no Indians east of the Mississippi River. In response, I frequently reply to their ignorance by informing that, on the contrary, there are still many here, and some are descendants of warriors who fought long and hard battles against the invasion of our homeland. I encourage these Western Indians to return home and thank God that, because of us Eastern Indians, their ancestors were given extra time to enjoy their culture before the onslaught of a European ethnocentrism that believed in destroying all vestiges of indigenous culture whenever and wherever they found it. Southeastern indigenous people paid a very high price for the misfortune of being the first to live in close proximity to the first permanent English settlement in America. While the English did indeed come here for better opportunities than existed for them back in the old country, you might say that they actually bore a close resemblance to a later group often found in the region, those known as “Carpetbaggers.”
Growing up under document genocide requires constant vigilance if you intend to be a survivor. Residing in the Washington, D.C., and suburban Fairfax County, Virginia, area makes you painfully aware of the insidiousness of document genocide. Whenever you fill out forms requiring you to identify a racial or ethnic designation, you are challenged by the intake personnel. Since I’m a “carded” Indian, I show them my official tribal identification. Other Indians who lack the same papers generally have their identities changed, after having endured a condescending lecture on how they should be proud to be a member of the
race to which the clerk’s “eyeball test” has thus relegated them. I have also had the personal experience of having had my race changed without my knowledge. I’ve found out about it later on when I’ve gone back to get copies of a particular official document. The Washington, D.C., Vital Statistics Office once informed me that I would have to retain the services of an attorney if I wanted to correct the misinformation appearing on my records.
Oh, I’m a pro when it comes to administering, as well as taking the “eyeball test.” I have been teaching school in Washington since February of 1973. Every year, homeroom teachers are asked to fill out an official ethnic designation “head count” form to identify the races of the students in their classrooms. Teachers are instructed to survey the class, and then, by casually glancing at the students, write down on the form how they “fit” in the various racial classifications. One year, I asked students to raise their hands if they knew they had a family history of descendants from indigenous American ancestors. Most of the students raised their hands in affirmation of having Indian ancestors, I wasn’t surprised. When I was appointed by the secretary of the interior to the nine-member Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Nation Committee, I engaged in in-depth research on African displacement in the American South. The committee’s findings revealed that since the overwhelming majority of Africans brought to America were male, and since so many male Indians had been killed in conflict with invading colonists or made into slaves and absorbed into African slave groups, it generally holds that most African Americans claiming Indian ancestry will cite a particular Indian woman in their lineage to show their claim to Indian heritage. European Americans like to refer to this country as the “New World.” More appropriately, it should be called the “Widowed World”. Countless Indians are “hiding out” or “passing” in African and European American communities, due in great part to the eternal shame of the legacy of slavery. To add to this travesty is the recent trend of calling legally enrolled Indian people “black Indians” instead of their more correct tribal names. Misguided authors in search of a quick buck or instant public attention perpetuate this racist misnomer.
“Where are you from honey?” Is the question I have been asked my entire life. It is a question that is never asked of me by indigenous people. Nonindigenous Americans have made me conscious that I don’t “fit in” no matter where I go. Most people assume I am a Latina or I’ve recently arrived from the subcontinent of India. Hispanic people speak to me in Spanish and grow angry or impatient with me when I respond to them in English. Continental Indians are accepting of me when I am by myself, but frown when they see me with my Taíno Jamaican husband. I’m not surprised at both groups’ reactions to me. It’s a commonly held joke in the Indian community that Latino people are really Indian cousins from the South, coming up North to help us repopulate the United States of America with Indian people. As for mistaken Hindu Indian identity, one can always remember that Christopher Columbus made the same mistake when he landed in the Caribbean and encountered the Taíno (one of several Arawak-speaking tribes) and Carib people. We have all been called Indians ever since that fateful encounter.
In the school year of 1994-1995, when I was on a Fulbright Teacher Exchange Fellowship to the United Kingdom, a colleague from Spain told me that I was called an “India” whereas someone from India was called an “Indu”. It would seem as though the Spanish are still confused about who we are. I found that the Brits and Africans in the UK also had the same problem in recognizing my true identity. After each of the three times I had been mugged in London, the police reported the incidents as “Paki-bashings,” a term used to designate crimes perpetuated against Southeast Asians.
My most memorable and positive experience during my Fulbright year was due mainly to my ancestral cousin, Pocahontas. Oh, I know what you’re thinking — “Here we go, back to the Disney cartoon story:” No, it’s not at all related to make-believe. After the last time I had been assaulted in London, I decided to go to Gravesend, Kent, where Pocahontas is buried in the St. George’s Church of England sanctuary. I wanted to lay some flowers at the foot of the statue erected to her memory (the statue is a twin to the one erected at the original site of Jamestown, Virginia), and pray, since she was the closest link to home that I had in England. I had initially planned to go to Gravesend on March 21, 1995, which would have coincided with the anniversary of her death date in 1617. There was a mix-up at the railroad station, and I wasn’t able to complete my journey. As a result, I was a day late arriving in Gravesend. However, March 22nd was a more personally significant day for me since it is the day, in 1622, that Opechancanough (brother of Powhatan, the father of Pocahontas, and his successor—because of his place in the matrilineal line of descent—as head of the Powhatan Confederacy, following Powhatan’s death in 1618) launched his war against English imperialists in Virginia.
When I arrived at St. George’s, the church just happened to be open for a special service, although it was usually closed on that day of the week. I went inside and identified myself to the pastor, the Reverend David Willey. He seemed genuinely glad to meet me. He told me about a special teacher at the church named Di Coleman, who was currently writing a play in honor of the 400th anniversary of Pocahontas’s birth. He said that she would welcome my help with the production and that the children of the church’s school would benefit from my working with them. I called the school and received permission from Head Teacher Jean Bannister to give a lecture at the school and to work with the Resolution Theater Group, directed and sponsored by Di Coleman. I assisted Ms. Coleman as cultural consultant, set designer, and costume designer, and it was truly a godsend experience.
The experience, however, stands out in stark contrast with that of my initial dealings with the Disney Corporation when they began their work on Pocahontas. Soon after I had agreed to work with them as an advisor, when I insisted the true story of Pocahontas should be told and not the fantasy it became, I was dismissed. Disney eventually hired one of my cousins to work on the movie. She later pretended not to know that Disney would deviate from actual historical fact in order to fabricate the love story between Pocahontas and John Smith. The movie was universally panned by well-informed members of the indigenous community when it was released. My cousin benefited from her collaboration with Disney by being able to charge higher fees for appearances as an entertainer.
My affiliation with the staff and students at St. George’s and Di Coleman remains one of the highlights of my life. There I was, thousands of miles from home, being accorded respect and recognition that I had never experienced in my homeland. At the end of the historic performance of the Pocahontas commemorative production (which was also performed at other locations in England before it went on to the International Folk Festival in Scotland), I marveled at how far I had come to receive such respect for who I was, instead of the ridicule that is commonplace in the United States. I thanked Head Teacher Jean Bannister and the people of Gravesend for extending hospitality to me in the same spirit of humanity that they held for my ancestral cousin Pocahontas. I felt as though I was partially repaying their kindness to her through the work I was engaged in with their children. I was fortunate that document genocide against me and my people did not extend to the town of Gravesend. The Virginia Indian presence is a viable part of the ongoing, living history of the town. Our history is shared by them as a legitimate source of cultural tourism and a source of pride in themselves.
Where do I go from here? As an educator and curriculum writer, I lecture and write about the history and cultural retentions of my people. I’m an active member of the “powwow circuit:" and I set up exhibits and displays, which celebrate the cultural possessions of my people. I serve on numerous historic, educational, and cultural boards, where I can have a direct impact on information and participatory events that are made available to both regional and national audiences. I’m both a Washington Teachers’ Union building representative and a member of the Local School Restructuring Team, given the mandate to improve
education for young people at the grassroots level. As a practicing professional artist, my culturally based artwork is exhibited through numerous venues and is, at present, touring the country in a show commemorating seven decades of American art. I’m the founder/director of the Powhatan Museum and the Center for Indigenous Culture in Washington, which is affiliated with the City Museum of Washington. I’m the mother of three sons, all of whom are dedicated to do all they can to help eradicate document genocide that is directed towards indigenous Americans in courtrooms, schoolrooms, living rooms, and film-screening rooms in this country. My never-ending battle continues, but I am determined that my people and I will survive document genocide.
The Racial Integrity Act of 1924
[In addition to “unintended” extermination of Indigenous Americans by foreign pathogens, the intentional eradication of Amerindians by the various European powers had begun with the first “illegal aliens” (the Spanish in the Caribbean) who began arriving in the Americas in 1492. Switch the numbers around and the 1924 Act to Preserve Racial Integrity was a 20th century attempt by the Virginia Government to complete the job that they had begun after both the American Revolution and the Civil War. This 1924 Act had wide impact beyond the borders of the state of Virginia. The most recent attempts to restrict increase Amerindian DNA in the United States is hidden in the issue of “Illegal Aliens” living in Virginia and those crossing the southern border of the United States of America. Fortunately, “that horse has already left the barn”. By moving to the next slot of racial dominance in the United States, Amerindian DNA via the racial classification of so-called “Hispanic” is well on its way to once again dominate North America as it has already rightfully done in South and Central America. It took the Spanish seven centuries to wrestle their country back from the Moorish Arabs of North Africa, who had introduced other forms of technological
“advancement” and cultural variations to Christian Spain. Maybe it will take the Amerindian a shorter time to regain dominance in their hemisphere.]
1. Be it enacted by the General Assembly of Virginia, That the State Registrar of Vital Statistics may as soon as practicable after the taking effect of this act, prepare a form whereon the racial composition of any individual, as Caucasian, negro, Mongolian, American Indian, Asiatic Indian, Malay, or any mixture thereof, or any other non-Caucasic strains, and if there be any mixture, then the racial composition of the parents and other ancestors, in so far as ascertainable, so as to show in what generation such mixture occurred, may be certified by such individual, which form shall be known as a registration certificate. The State Registrar may supply to each local registrar a sufficient number of such forms for the purpose of this act; each local registrar may personally or by deputy, as soon as possible after receiving said forms, have made thereon in duplicate a certificate of the racial composition as aforesaid, of each person resident in his district, who so desires, born before June fourteenth, nineteen hundred and twelve, which certificate shall be made over the signature of said person, or in the case of children under fourteen years of age, over the signature of a parent, guardian, or other person standing in loco parentis. One of said certificates for each person thus registering in every district shall be forwarded to the State Registrar for his files; the other shall be kept on file by the local registrar.
Every local registrar may, as soon as practicable, have such registration certificate made by or for each person in his district who so desires, born before June fourteen, nineteen hundred and twelve, for whom he has not on file a registration certificate, or a birth certificate.
2. It shall be a felony for any person wilfully or knowingly to make a registration certificate false as to color or race. The wilful making of a false registration or birth certificate shall be punished by confinement in the penitentiary for one year.
3. For each registration certificate properly made and returned to the State Registrar, the local registrar returning the same
shall be entitled to a fee of twenty-five cents, to be paid by the registrant. Application for registration and for transcript may be made direct to the State Registrar, who may retain the fee for expenses of his office.
4. No marriage license shall be granted until the clerk or deputy clerk has reasonable assurance that the statements as to color of both man and woman are correct.
If there is reasonable cause to disbelieve that applicants are of pure white race, when that fact is stated, the clerk or deputy clerk shall withhold the granting of the license until satisfactory proof is produced that both applicants are "white persons" as provided for in this act.
The clerk or deputy clerk shall use the same care to assure himself that both applicants are colored, when that fact is claimed.
5. It shall hereafter be unlawful for any white person in this State to marry any save a white person, or a person with no other admixture of blood than white and American Indian. For the purpose of this act, the term "white person" shall apply only to the person who has no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian; but persons who have one-sixteenth or less of the blood of the American Indian and have no other non-Caucasic blood shall be deemed to be white persons. All laws heretofore passed and now in effect regarding the intermarriage of white and colored persons shall apply to marriages prohibited by this act.
6. For carrying out the purposes of this act and to provide the necessary clerical assistance, postage and other expenses of the State Registrar of Vital Statistics, twenty per cent of the fees received by local registrars under this act shall be paid to the State Bureau of Vital Statistics, which may be expended by the said bureau for the purposes of this act.
7. All acts or parts of acts inconsistent with this act are, to the extent of such inconsistency, hereby repealed.