Jamestown: A Celebration for All?

Jamestown
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America is celebrating the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, but how should the story be told? A historian and a curator offer their thoughts.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Today is 400th anniversary of the first English permanent settlement at Jamestown. Britain's Queen Elizabeth II is spending three days observing the commemoration. This visit is quite different from the Queen's last visit in 1957. Back then, African-Americans invited to dine with the Queen were uninvited at the last minute. And Indians were not invited at all.

But the world is a different place these days. And the way we talk about history is also different, as the queen herself acknowledged yesterday.

Queen ELIZABETH II (Great Britain): Fifty years on, we are now in a position to reflect more candidly on the Jamestown legacy. Human progress rarely comes without cost, and those early years in Jamestown when three great civilizations came together for the first time, Western European, Native American and African, released a train of events which continues to have a profound social impact.

MARTIN: But how should we talk about a shared path with so many different meanings? Here to discuss this is Tom Davidson. He is senior curator at the Jamestown Settlement and Museum. And Gabrielle Tayac. She is a curator and researcher at the National Museum of the American Indian.

Welcome to both of you.

Ms. GABRIELLE TAYAC (Curator and Researcher, National Museum of the American Indian): Thank you for having us.

Mr. TOM DAVIDSON (Senior Curator, Jamestown Settlement and Museum): Thank you.

MARTIN: Mr. Davidson, can I start with you? Do you remember what you were first taught in school about the founding of the Jamestown settlement?

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, actually, in my era, we received very little instruction about Jamestown at all. We received a very brief unit that certainly gave the impression that the pilgrims were the first Europeans in America. So I received essentially no background at all on that subject.

MARTIN: And Gabrielle Tayac, do you remember what you were first taught about the Jamestown settlement?

Ms. TAYAC: The main thing that I was first given the impression of it in school certainly was the Pocahontas story. But what I learned at home was quite different from what I learned at school, and much more about how Jamestown in those early moments were about how native people started to lose what they had.

MARTIN: Would you tell me more about that?

Ms. TAYAC: It was difficult in the sense that I had wished that my teachers would also have explored this with me. And, actually, they would often get angry that I would bring up something that was different from what they were bringing up in school. And similar to Tom, I also, you know, you learn more about the pilgrims than about Jamestown, that's absolutely true.

But what I learned first from my father, who was a Piscataway Indian who are from the Chesapeake region of Maryland, was that this early, early English settlement was about how - he would describe it to me as if, what would it be like if somebody came to your house and they liked it and they decided to stay but then they made you leave.

And so I remember that very, very clearly from the time that I was a small child. And even though I grew up in a very open-minded place, which was Greenwich Village, New York City, in the 1970s, I still found in the public school system that there wasn't any material that was being given to kids or that I was being considered a talking-back person if I brought that up too much. And so that's, I'm sure, in a large part of what drove me to become who I am now, which is a historian.

So that's, you know, very, very formative, and I don't want that same history to be repeated to my children or other people's children.

MARTIN: Tom Davidson, first I should probably say congratulations. And you're probably going to be really glad when this week is over because of all the stuff you have going on at Jamestown. But I noticed that the word celebration is generally not being used to describe the events of this weekend. Why not?

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, that's a conscious decision. We use the term commemoration because we recognize that this is not an occasion for celebration, certainly not for all parts of America. On the other hand, we emphasize commemoration and we emphasize the event because it's unquestionably one of those great turning points in history. In other words, whether you like the consequences of the Jamestown settlement or not, you can't deny the impact that it's had on your life. So we commemorate it because it's important, essentially, and because it's so fundamental to later U.S. history.

MARTIN: And Gabrielle Tayac, do you have a problem with that? Is there anything wrong with that?

Ms. TAYAC: Oh I don't think it's ever a problem or a mistake to look back and examine history, and I would certainly agree with my colleague that there is absolutely no denying how formative Jamestown is, how essential it is to understanding what happens later. And I am very gratified, as are many of my native and non-native counterparts, that the decisions were made to shift quite sharply from the idea of celebration to commemoration because that's the way that we can start to delve and really understand what the meaning is. And I think it just helps us to try to sort out who we are and where we come from.

MARTIN: Tom Davidson, what are some of the things you're trying to accomplish with this commemoration?

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, I'm trying to accomplish, and I think my institution is trying to accomplish, a general broadening of the storyline. Not just in terms of, you know, ethnicity, but also in terms of impact, the recognition that Jamestown was the central event and that Jamestown really was significant ultimately on a worldwide scale.

This isn't just a story of a group of Englishmen coming over to the Americas and establish, you know, a little English village on the corner of an otherwise unknown continent. Jamestown was a new thing. It was the harbinger of a new era, and ultimately it impacts not just Americans but everybody.

MARTIN: You know, there is a saying, of course, that history is written by the winners. But there is of course, and as each of you has pointed out, there are different strands of history. There's the history of the English who arrived and confronted all the challenges that they confronted. There's the history of African-Americans. You know, one group was enslaved. There's a history of Native Americans, that group that was displaced. You've got those three very different strands.

How could you possibly reconcile them? Or can you? Is that a worthy goal?

Ms. TAYAC: None of those events that you just mentioned occurred in isolation. They occurred in relationship to each other. So it's revisionist not to include all the aspects of the story.

MARTIN: Tom Davidson?

Mr. DAVIDSON: I would absolutely agree. You really can't segment it too finely and have anything left of a coherent picture of the era.

MARTIN: There is, obviously, in - there are competing set of goals here. On one hand, you want to be as accurate as possible. On the other hand, you have to get things down to digestible nuggets. And one way to do that is some of the commercials that many people will have seen on television stations, and there's some sort of print ads being done by the tourism board. And, obviously, you're not responsible for those, Tom. But you do have these "Quadricentennial Minutes" that I think you produced for public television. Let's play one of them, that's the one about Pocahontas.

(Soundbite of "Quadricentennial Minutes")

Unidentified Man: She learned some of the English ways while serving as a cultural intermediary between the colonists and her own people. During a period of conflict, she was captured by the English, who instructed her in the Anglican religion and English culture.

Her marriage to John Rolfe in 1614 marked the start of a period of cooperation between the English colonists and the Powhatans. Pocahontas traveled to England in 1616 with her husband and young son. She died there and is buried at Gravesend.

MARTIN: It's got that nice kind of school real, you know, sound. It's got a nice sound. Tom Davidson, your museum produced these spots, right?

Mr. DAVIDSON: Yes.

MARTIN: Yes. Well, tell me, what was the idea here?

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, the whole idea of the series was to personalize, I think, the 17th century experience by focusing on individuals, but using those individual lives to make larger points. And, of course, the result is that with a spot that is this short inevitably what you're getting is a very edited version of a much sort of more complex story.

MARTIN: Gabrielle, how do you hear this point? How do you hear this spot?

Ms. TAYAC: You know, it's interesting because we did an interactive piece called the "Pocahontas Talent" and we used her as a way to really start to describe, you know, what's the true and false, what's the myth and what's the reality. And we immediately started to position her by introducing two of her other names, which were Matoaka and Amonute, to start to get to that point where maybe even the name that you remember her by was not necessarily the name, and that she also had an English conversion name and how multiple this person was.

And to describe it, I think, what I hear in the ad also is that wondering, you know, how compliant is she. I think the issue of kidnapped and capture is a very, very serious point. And so I think that these are the kinds of stories that when we take the next step we start to need to probe them quite clearly.

MARTIN: Tom Davidson, how do you feel about that? How do you tell that story for the entire country?

Mr. DAVIDSON: Well, that is, of course, the great difficulty. And what we try to do as much as possible is offer alternatives, give as broad a perspective as possible and let people come to their own conclusions. I'm very wary about essentially doing any sort of psychological interpretation of people in the 17th century.

MARTIN: But as we go forward from these commemorations, Tom Davidson, what would you want people to come away from this weekend with? What message would you want them to hear, understand, feel, experience?

Mr. DAVIDSON: That American history isn't just separate stories of separate people, that what's actually driving history is interactions between people. It's the cross-fertilization often in contexts that are not peaceful at all, often in contexts that are violent, that are actually the engine that essentially shapes culture as we move forward in time.

MARTIN: And what about you, Gabrielle Tayac?

Ms. TAYAC: I think as we look back at how we managed that difference 400 years ago and to acknowledge how far we've come, particularly in the past 40 years since the civil rights era and since being an Indian was no longer outlawed in the state of Virginia since 1967.

MARTIN: Wow, that's worth knowing. Gabrielle Tayac. She is a curator and researcher at the National Museum of the American Indian, and she's a specialist in the history of Indians at Jamestown. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. TAYAC: Okay, thank you.

MARTIN: And Tom Davidson also joined us. He is senior curator of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, which runs the Jamestown settlement and museum. Mr. Davidson, thank you for joining us.

Mr. DAVIDSON: Thanks for inviting me.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Coming up, where are the African-Americans spiritual leaders in the environmental movement?

Reverend MICHAEL BECKWITH (Agape International Spiritual Center in Culver City, California): I believe that it is possible to be brown, black and green to begin to really have stewardship and to love the Mother, to love Mother Earth.

MARTIN: A Faith Matters conversation about the climate.

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