Rebecca’s Children

This is another chapter from my unplublished book, Digging Sites and Telling Stories: Essays in Interpretive Historical Archaeology.” As such many of the tidying-up chores of a published work, such as filling in the bibliographic details and having ready-for-press visual materials, are lacking here. What’s more, I’m “publishing” here on this blog a work originally written as a much more condensed conference paper in 1991. Times of changed. We now DO see Native Americans in Colonial Williamsburg. And that is a good thing.

Dan Mouer, September 2018

Old and new myths concerning Indians in Virginia’s history and archaeology1

Let me begin by taking an unscientific poll. Do you claim to have “Indian blood” in your ancestry? Do you feel you are a product to some extent of American Indian culture? Have you ever worn, or wanted to wear fringed buckskin or a pair of moccasins? Have you ever taken quinine when travelling to a tropical region? Have you worn silver and turquoise jewelry or owned a Navajo rug? Or lived in a place with a name like Kansas, Tennessee, or Manhattan, or on a body of water named Mississippi or Chesapeake? Have you ever used tobacco products, eaten any foods containing corn or potatoes or turkey or beans? Or participated in any way in the world-system economy which was created and driven for three centuries by the exchange of Native American blood and sweat and silver for East Indian pepper and Chinese porcelain and African slaves…?

“We don’t see any Indians in Williamsburg.”

This remark was made by a noted social historian in 1987 during a discussion following my presentation of a paper on American Indian contributions to 18th-century Virginia foodways (Mouer *). Upon hearing it, I realized that, despite many years of immersion in Virginia Indian history, I had some trouble “seeing” Indians in Williamsburg also. The purpose of this essay is to argue that the reason we don’t “see” Indians in Virginia’s colonial capitol is not because they, their handiworks, and their culture were not represented there in actual history, but because we–meaning latter-day historians and historical archaeologists–have not placed them there in our interpretations. We have parsed the Indian parcel of our history into esoteric academic boxes called “prehistory” and “ethnohistory,” and have made Indian history someone else’s problem. At the same time, we have created or reinforced the cycle of continuing mythic interpretation of the American Indian as something other than real, other than human, other than historical, and–perhaps most to the point–other than “us.”

This denial of Indian heritage would be easily discarded as ignorance or bigotry if it weren’t obvious that our profession seems staffed by people of unusually liberal sentiment, most of whom would undoubtedly identify with the general project of anthropology as increasing tolerance towards cultural variety. A less sinister, and I feel more accurate, view would see academics caught up in the popular myth thatwe—meaning white and black people–replaced them–the Indians–in rapid fashion leaving them little opportunity to participate in our history in a meaningful way, no matter how regrettable this may be. This myth contains some ironies that need exploring, however.

The Indian Queen

It is a standing joke in Virginia that many of the older families of the Old Dominion trace their ancestry to Pocahontas as any perusal of the genealogical and local history literature will confirm. Pocahontas is, indeed, a totem ancestor for many Virginians (Figures 6.1 and 6.2). Many official and semi-official symbols in the Commonwealth contain the figure known as “the Indian Queen” (Figure 6.3). She is derived from historic trademarks or seal emblems used to identify Virginia tobacco. She once symbolized the Indian’s gift to the Commonwealth–a gift that provided the capital to power Virginia to dominance among the thirteen colonies and to finance the Revolution. The Indian Queen is also a reference to Pocahontas–who often is referred to as a “princess” in mythical histories.

Pocahontas was one of the daughters of Powhatan, the paramount chief over most coastal plain Indian groups from sometime prior to the arrival of Jamestown settlers until his death in 1618. Pocahontas, first encountered by the English at the age of 10 or 11, had an unnerving effect on some of those who described her–an effect which if explored with insight would have to be interpreted today with an X rating. One can fairly hear the deep sighs behind the chroniclers’ slim paragraphs. If I read Captain John Smith properly–and he told his story many years after his first encounter with the girl–his was a more paternal impression of the Indian maiden than some, but he was nonetheless smitten. The way in which one young Indian woman was perceived reflect a common perception at the time of the Americas as a “wanton” and “virgin” wilderness waiting to be taken by European conquest and development.2

This sentiment was reproduced in many 16th- and 17th-century paintings; a classic example is *’s Amerigo Vespuci and an American Nativedating to the early 17th century (Figure 6.4). Here “an American Native” is depicted as a voluptuous and recumbent nude female figure greeting–offering herself to?–Vespucci, a standing, male European figure. An even more telling image is a 16th-century Nederlandish work which depicts “America” as a semi-nude female holding the severed heads of male captives (Figure 6.5). Sex and violence comingle in this painting wih wild and mythical animals to create an interpretation of savagery, heathenism, and wildness all awaiting the dominating and domesticating touch of Christian civilization.

The Virginians’ love for Pocahontas stems from Smith’s tale of being saved from the head-bashing stone of Powhatan by the girl who–driven by uncanny love–threw herself around the victim and saved his life (Figure 6.6). Later, through her marriage to the inventor of sweet-scented Virginia tobacco, John Rolfe, Pocahontas helped create a decade of peace and cooperation between Indians and English which allowed the struggling colony to gain the needed foothold on what would become known centuries later as America’s manifest destiny. Head-bashing was the Powhatan manner of execution for thieves and miscreants among themselves; it was not the prescription for dealing with enemy captives–a fate that involved torture and humiliation nearly beyond comprehension and which–to compound the injury with insult–was generally left to the execution of women and children.3

Powhatan had accepted the English as his “brothers”–or, perhaps more correctly, as his “sons.” Perplexed that Smith and others could behave in ways the chief found disrespectful he elected to illustrate his power over all those chiefs of Eastern Virginia whom Powhatan held as brothers. This power rested ultimately upon the head-bashing stone and Powhatan’s ability to capture any chief and deliver him to that fate in Powhatan’s own house. The saving of Smith’s head, we must imagine, at the whim of a young girl, provided–or should have provided–a powerful message: that the fate of the English colony lay entirely with Powhatan or even, at his whim, with his child.

Pocahontas has been rendered in many ways by the historians and artists of America through time, but few of them depict what I suspect to be anyone’s early 17th century reality. Most typically we find her dressed in a deerskin shift, a long braid at her back, a neat headband holding a single feather: not unlike the Land-o-Lakes butter emblem or Howdy Doody’s Princess Summer-Fall-Winter-Spring. Several of us who make Virginia’s Indian history a focus of study were asked for assistance by the new Jamestown Settlement Museum in interpreting Pocahontas. A sculptor had been retained and a lifesize likeness of the Indian “princess” was desired by curators to stand at the entrance to the Powhatan Indian Gallery. Helen Rountree, myself and a few others attempted to depict a daughter of Powhatan. Her dress and bodily decoration may have varied considerably depending which side of menarche we chose to interpret. The twelve or thirteen year old girl dressed–or rather undressed–for summer would have stood in the gallery rendered lifesize quite naked or, at most, her “modesty secured with a tuft of moss and a length of twine” as one chronicler described it (Figure 6.7). Her head may have been shaven or plucked nearly bald. On the other hand, the post-pubescent maiden may have worn a more ample “apron.” Her breasts, thighs, ankles and wrists may have been handsomely decorated with elaborate tattoos and a thick coating of rancid bear’s oil mixed with red pigment. Perhaps she may have been illustrated pursuing “women’s work:” weaving baskets, cooking dinner, impaling burning lightwood splinter torches beneath the skin of a male captive… But fortunately, I suppose, other interpretive devices were sought and found.

Included temporarily in the gallery’s Pocahontas exhibit was her portrait painted from life when she and Rolfe visited England following their marriage (Figure 6.8). Interestingly, “Pocahontas” is not one of the names that appears on the painting. Instead her adult or–if Woodward (*) is correct–her “secret” name, Matoaca, is given, along with her Christian name, for she was baptized Rebecca. She was painted, in all probability as she appeared at the court of James I when taken for a meeting between Virginian and British royal houses. Wearing her high ruffled collar and sitting for what must have seemed an interminable time for her portrait, it is little wonder she projected and, through the artist, we detect more than a little discomfort in her eyes. Following her part in Powhatan’s charade with John Smith, Pocahontas was kidnapped by the Potomacs and handed over to the English who kept her hostage at the frontier outposts of Henrico and Bermuda Hundred. She was tutored in English culture and religion by the Reverend Alexander Whitaker and, following receipt of a long and slobberingly sentimental letter from Rolfe who declared undying and intensely English love for the converted heathen girl, both Powhatan and Lieutenant Governor Thomas Dale assented to a marriage. Her life ended in English disease as she awaited the voyage that would return her to Virginia. Rolfe returned with his and Rebecca’s infant son, Thomas, and it is through the many children of Thomas’ descendant, Jane Bolling Randolph, the mistress of Curles Plantation in the 2nd quarter of the 18th century–that those who would be biologically descended from “the Indian Queen” chart their genealogies.

The remainder of Virginia’s Indian history as recounted through most recent texts, museum exhibits, and–if I may borrow Deetz’s term–archaeographies–involves Opechancanough’s massacre of 1622, his second massacre of 1644, and the Indian wars of 1676 more commonly called Bacon’s Rebellion, because the internal insurrection among the English is generally considered more important to history than the massacres of Appomattox, Occaneechees, Susquehannocks, Doegs, and Pamunkeys by English-speaking Virginians. In our shared histories, these Indian-White wars generally serve to provide colorful backgrounds and obstacles to be overcome in the conquest of the frontier.

Indians have not been neglected in modern historical and archaeological research and writing–far from it. It is just that their roles have been restricted to the works of archaeologists whose training, background and academic brotherhoods would define them as “prehistorians” or “ethnohistorians” (who have created yet another subdiscipline sandwiched between anthropology and history). What’s more, the subjects about which even these folks are likely to publish are restricted. The “prehistorians” write about trade goods and acculturation as revealed in excavations of post-contact Indian villages–but focusing still on issues of artifacts such as trade beads and copper, while the ethnohistorians write primarily about life in some timeless “ethnographic present,” leaving Indians with no pre-Contact past and no post-contact history. There are notable exceptions to these patterns, and I hasten to point to Helen Rountree’s on-going works on Powhatan Indian history. Other boxes of confinement include the outlets of such materials–most typically papers at meetings and in journals read by other prehistorians and ethnohistorians, but rarely by “mainstream” American historians, historical archaeologists, or the public at large.4

This is not a new problem. Historian Reginald Horseman complained long ago about the “parochial” nature of American Indian historical writing due to historians of Indians being generally methodologically backwards, and thus Indian history occupies a “backwater” in historical writing (Martin 1987). Calvin Martin feels there are more reasons than methodological ones and describes the “yawning disinterest” of most historians in the subject:

The majority of American historians seem to regard the whole issue as an endless tale of woe and atrocity committed mostly against Indians, a litany many find redundant, tiresome, and depressing. More pointedly, the Indian experience is viewed, and so treated, as a curious, even quaint sideshow within the larger panorama of Anglo-American performance and achievement in North America. (ibid: 9)

Robert Berkhofer (1987) described his attempts to submit a doctoral degree on a subject related to the history of American Indians in the 1950s. He was warned by advisors that Indians were not properly part of the field. He was told that theyshould be left to ethnologists and others. If he wrote his dissertation on Indian-white relations, he could never hope to gain professional acceptance. His dissertation was listed in Dissertation Abstractsunder “Anthropology,” even though he requested it be listed under American religious history. Berkhofer sees the field as having changed these past 30 years or so. The “New Indian History” is upon us. The field is overflowing with historians studying Indians. Berkhofer ascribes the trend to the expanding interest in and concern for the inclusion of blacks, women, and other groups formerly “omitted from the mainstream of American history” (Berkhofer 1987: 36). But the trend is still young, and the lacuna in American historiography is vast. Berkhofer asks:

Have Indians…been as significant as blacks in history books or in making a “name” for an historian? Is the Civil War more important than the French and Indian War in determining the destiny of Anglo-Americans? The former generally receives far more extensive treatment in historical surveys of the American past than the latter. (Berkhofer 1987: note 1)

To both Martin and Berkhofer a key problem in the writing of Indian history by (primarily) white historians is the inability to escape ethnocentrism. Berkhofer notes the range of approaches and comments:

I have explored some of the implications and difficulties of the effort to eliminate the ethnocentrism of the traditional Turnerian approach to the American frontier… Neither a concentration upon stages of acculturation as found in American anthropology of the 1950s, nor the repudiation of white domination of the acculturative process and the corresponding stress on creativity of the dominated … [in the 1960s and 70s], nor even the exploration of the implications of the Capitalist World-System in [the 1980s] really solves the problem of designating the who and where of tribal peoples without recourse to white-based concepts of nationalism and political understanding… (Berkhofer 1987: note 4).

Following Berkhofer we should be reluctant to speak of Monacans and Powhatans and Weyanokes and other “tribal” groups. As he states:

…the ethnocentrism of a tribal people in combination with the ethnocentrism of other tribal and Euro-American peoples determined who constituted a tribe as an ethnic identity. The power of the respective peoples vis-a-vis each other then delimited the territory and at times the lifestyles of what came to be called a tribe. Thus the historical space as well as the tribe itself are the objects of research, for the semantics of tribal identity was created through and by history (Berkhofer 1987: p39).

This is even more true when speaking of race. The problem of who is white, black or Indian is a thorny historical, theoretical, and semantic problem entirely wrapped up within the power relations of not only the past but the present, but I’ll speak of that in more detail momentarily (see also Jennings 1984: 5, 18-19, 347). Berkhofer’s essay suggests–though not as severely as Martin’s–that Indian history is all but impossible without ethnocentrism. Many feel there is a need to write a “true” Indian history that is not written from white perspectives. I would like to suggest that this idea–that white and Indian history can be separated after Contact–is itself problematic.

Anthropologists routinely confront the problem of ethnocentrism, and continually debate the question of the “other” and how to approach it. But this is not even the classical anthropological problem. I would argue, as do many anthropologists and Indian historians, that the insistence on the attempt to write a different kind of history about a different kind of world–an Indian world distinct from the world of the Non-Indian writer–is itself ethnocentrist (see, for instance, the essays by Washburn and Dorris in the Martin volume). Eric Wolf writes in his book Europe and the People Without Historyof the encompassing of peoples throughout the globe into the economy and history of the modern world-system. The spread of European influence, culture, and disease created a web of “causes and consequences” which engulfed all peoples into a common history:

In the process, the societies and cultures of these people underwent major changes. These changes affected not only the people singled out as the carriers of “real” history but also the populations anthropologists have called “primitives” and have studied as pristine survivals from a timeless past. The global processes set in motion by European expansion constitute theirhistory as well. There are no “contemporary ancestors,,” no “people without history.”.. (ibid.**check ref: 385).

Brian Fagan (*) comes to a similar conclusion. He argues forcibly that the arrival of Columbus on these shores set up interactions between Old and New World peoples which would profoundly change each. Neil Salsbury makes a similar point, and one that is especially germane to this paper:

Many historians, anthropologists and archaeologists work from a methodological inconsistency which cannot be justified by recourse to any currently acceptable scientific or humanistic premises, one which implies that Indians lack not only a past of their own but a present and a future as well. The implication might bear debating were it not for the wealth of evidence against it, much of it produced by these very scholars. At the heart of the inconsistency is the scholars’ inability to break their myth-rooted habits once and for all and, instead, approach Indian history as historians supposedly approach other subjects, that is, by envisioning events in past time as occurring in multifaceted contexts and by bearing in mind that history consists, quite simply, of the processes of change and continuity over time, processes from which no human or collection of humans can be exempt. This means, first, casting aside the patently ahistorical notions of “prehistory,” “ethnographic present,” “historical baseline” and “protohistory,” all of which qualitatively differentiate the Native American past from the European past and prevent us from seeing it on its own terms and as a continuum. (Salsbury 1987: p. 47).

The Indian has been many things to those of America and the rest of the world who do not consider themselves to be Indian. Many fine books and essays have explored the role of Indians in our own mythic histories. Some of the “New Indian Historians” could even be described as having “gone native,” seeking to find an Indian perspective to history; historians, apparently, have their Casta–edas, too. In reviewing some of the roles Indians have played for history, Martin notes:

One senses in all of this the American Indian wearing the mantle of savior, rescuing us from the disastrous course of history, or at least our rendition of it… Indians of course have a long and distinguished career in the service of European and American causes, from their duty as “noble savages” at the hands of the French philosophes, to surrogate slaves in the fervent rhetoric of antebellum abolitionists, to lost souls in the impaginations of numberless missionaries, to a cohesive influence in the “frontier thesis” of Frederick Jackson Turner and his disciples, all the way up to ecological gurus in the environmental scare of the 1960s. In each instance, Indians are pulled and twisted into a grotesque shape, a caricature of the genuine article, by those purporting to speak for or about them, or using them for this or that cause. We tend to invent Indians for all seasons; it’s one of the interesting quirks of our culture. (Martin 1987: 24).

The writing of Indian history or archaeology is not qualitatively different from writing any history or archaeology. Mostly white, predominantly male, 20th-century scholars are in no more privileged a position to interpret 18th-century plantation culture than they are in when they encounter 18th-century Indians, Classic Period Mesoamericans, Ancient Greeks, or present-day San Bushmen. Ethnocentrism and anachronism always need to be dealt with. The solution has traditionally been sought in critical analysis, an open mind, and a comprehensive mastery of the relevant scholarship and sources. In short, the problem with historiography vis-a-vis Indians is that, even with the extensive amount of research and writing being done today, Indian history is still viewed as apart from the mainstream. Nowhere is this more evident than in Virginia and Virginia’s historical archaeology.

Are there Indians in Virginia’s history after 1622? 1644? 1676?

Archaeologists and historians alike are constrained by their sources. If the historical and archaeological records were mute about Virginia Indians after, say, Opechancanough’s second uprising of 1644 or Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676, there would be little to do but speculate vacuously about their presence, absence, importance, or lack thereof in Virginia’s history. But nothing could be further from the truth. As Gary Nash has written:

Our history books have largely forgotten what was patently obvious throughout [the late Colonial Period]–that much of the time and energy of the [French, Spanish and English colonial] governments…was spent negotiating, trading, and fighting with and against Indians of various cultures, and filing reports, requests, and complaints to the home governments concerning the state of Indian affairs. (Nash 1982: 223)

To claim that Indians were not a very significant element in the history and culture of Colonial and Antebellum Virginia requires ignoring the weight of both historical and archaeological evidence. In his essay on Chesapeake historiography, Thad Tate (*) repeatedly notes that historians have overlooked the history of the Indian peoples; Indians were far more important to Colonial Virginians than they are to today’s historians and archaeologists.

Even a minimal reading of period sources and period histories makes it patently obvious that Indians were on nearly everyone’s mind throughout the 18th century, and well into the 19th century, even in Virginia. Certainly a perusal of Kercheval’s or Doddridge’s early 19th century histories of the Valley of Virginia contain very few pages that don’t discuss Indians and Indian-white relations (Kercheval 1833). Earlier works–those of Jefferson, Hugh Jones, William Byrd II, Robert Beverley and others contain, as a percentage, a much greater emphasis on the Indian as a substantial part of Virginia’s history than do recent works–other than those specifically classifiable as “ethnohistories,” that is.

A perusal of Swem’s Index (*), the encyclopedic guide to Virginia historical sources and early writings, reveals what I would wager to be some surprising insights. Mentions of Indians in 17th-century Virginia are understandably numerous, but nowhere near as numerous as those for the 18th century. In fact, under the basic classification “Indians,” Swem’s lists several thousand separate entries. And these are distinct from the entries indexed under Indian Wars, Indian Acts, Indian Towns, Indian Houses, Indian Chiefs, and dozens of other headings. In addition, Swem’s lists more than 300 distinct Indian group names and perhaps 1,000 Indian personal names as index headings. The entries in Swem’s say nothing of the numerous 17th- and 18th-century county court and vestry records dealing with Indians incidentally or directly. Everyone who has researched properties in Virginia’s colonial records is aware of mentions of Indian towns, Indian cabins, Indian paths; lawsuits by and against Indians, wills passing Indian servants to heirs or freeing them, etc. The thousands of Indian names in the records–some clearly in Indian languages, some creolized, and some patently English–provide potential grist for the genealogical mill.

Besides the standard public documents, such as acts of the assembly, there are a number of important Indian texts extant in the literature. Like many such texts, they have often been translated, transcribed, or rendered by Indian agents, although many are verbatim records or original inscriptions. Texts such as the Queen of Pamunkey’s response to the Governor’s Council on being asked to render assistance against the Susquehannocks, or the great Delaware orator Logan’s eulogy and cry for vengeance upon having his family brutally eradicated by Virginia militia, or Cornplanter’s furtive request that Virginia permit he and his people to live as Virginians and worship the Virginian’s God…these and many other texts provide a fresh, nearly untapped source of interpretive material.

Mainstream histories of Virginia still ignore Indians. Look, for instance, at Rhys Isaac’s wonderful volume, the Transformation of Virginia 1740-1790. This Pulitzer Prize-winning book contains one of the best accounts of 18th century Virginia yet published, but contains no hint that Indians were present, let alone important. The major theme of Isaac’s book is the social and cultural revolution that arrived with the Great Awakening in Virginia in the 1740s. The beginnings of momentous changes that lead directly to the dissolution of the Tidewater oligarchy and the American Revolution are traced to the stirrings of the Hanover dissident revolt, the Parson’s Cause, and the teachings of that magical orator, the Reverend Samuel Davies. Among Davies’ many notable contributions–and greatly stressed by Isaac–was his acceptance of black slaves into his congregations, and his teaching them to read, write, and learn the gospel. But one would think there were not even Indians in the Hanover up-country frontier of the 1740s and 1750s, and yet our recent excavations at Davies’ church recovered classical Colono-Indian ware–not surprising as the church stood on Totopotomoy Creek a short distance from the largest concentration of Indians in Virginia, even today. A reading of Davies’ sermons reveals his very strong negative, highly racist, feelings about Indians. This is simply one example where both the texts and the archaeology reveal Indians, but the historiographer doesn’t see them.

Every archaeologist of 18th-century Virginia’s towns and plantations has collections of Colono-Indian wares, and the evidence is clear that the majority of what has been classified as Colono-Indian Ware in Virginia was primarily made by Indians (Figures 6.8-6.11). Many historical archaeologists have begun to take as gospel James Deetz’s (1988*) assertion that Virginia colonoware, to use the generic term, was made by African-American slaves. While it is likely that someChesapeake colonoware pottery was produced by black slaves, this remains a hypothesis, not a well-studied conclusion. A century’s worth of archaeological and ethnographic work, and a sizeable body of historical data, clearly supports the long-established fact that most Colono-Indian Ware in Virginia is just what No‘l Hume (*) said it was: the product of local Native American craftsmen or, more likely, craftswomen (Mouer et al, in press *).

Deetz’s conclusion follows from the work of Leland Ferguson and his colleagues in South Carolina and Georgia. Since much of the locally made, hand-built, low-fired pottery excavated on early Carolina plantation sites is found in slave quarters, as it typically is in Virginia, research there began to attack the question of possible slave manufacture. Ferguson has concluded that, with the exception of a distinctive pottery known as Catawba Ware, Colono-Indian pottery in the Lowcountry was probably made by black slaves. In the West Indies, similar locally produced hand-made earthenwares are generically referred to as West Indian wares or Creole Wares. Why, one must wonder, is the diversity of such pottery, as well as the diversity of its colonial creators, easier to see in South Carolina or the Caribbean? I am convinced that the idea that African-Americans produced most, or all, of Virginia’s colonoware is a product of the recurring myth of the “disappearing” Indians.

At about the same time Deetz published his article, Matthew Emerson completed a dissertation for the University of California at Berkeley (Emerson 1988*) which asserted that another class of artifacts, the ubiquitous 17th-century decorated tobacco pipes, which Emerson named “Chesapeake” pipes, were also the products primarily of black servants and slaves. Again, this conclusion is not widely shared by archaeologists working in the Chesapeake. Identical and very similar roulette-decorated elbow pipes are well documented for the Late Woodland cultures of Virginia and Maryland. Many of the decorative motifs can be found in prehistoric pipes and in other Indian decorative arts traditions. While some of the decorative motifs have African parallels, and may have been African-inspired, the conclusion–based on comparisons of form, decorative technique and motifs–that the Chesapeake pipes were made primarily by Africans is not supported.5

Tobacco pipes and clay pots have no ethnicities, but their interpretations by historical archaeologists can have a great deal of significance for our understanding of American ethnic patterns, both historically and in the present. The attempt to find archaeological evidence of African Americans in 17th-, 18th- and early 19th- century sites by ascribing thousands of clay pot fragments to them has not furthered our understanding or appreciation of African-American culture in Colonial Virginia. We have known for 30 years that Colono-Indian pots were often purchased for use by slaves; No‘l Hume suggested as much. But denying the Indian manufacture of this widespread trade pottery which lingers in the archaeological record well into the 19th century, and in the ethnographic record into the 20th century, denies once again the very existence of Indians in Virginia’s history and even in our present life.

The problem of 17th-century Chesapeake tobacco pipes is more complex. Emerson has riveted our attention on these fascinating artifacts–many of which are truly museum quality specimens of folk art. His research on these pipes has provided a valuable catalogue of the rich variety of their decoration and distribution. Nonetheless, his conclusions seem to systematically deny the importance of Indian culture in these magnificent artifacts. Many of the key features of African art that Emerson finds in these pipes occur in prehistoric American Indian specimens. To suggest that these pipes were made by primarily by African slaves is to suggest that social conditions conducive to the development of a coherent folk art tradition existed when, in fact, the few Africans living in the 17th century Chesapeake were probably from differing homelands with widely disparate cultural traditions. In the 17th-century Chesapeake they were primarily parcelled out one or two per homestead in a highly dispersed settlement pattern with little opportunity for close interaction and communication. At the same time, Indian groups were coalescing, forming new alliances, and undergoing the throes of attempts at cultural revitalization in the face of massive pandemic plagues and cultural intrusions.

There can be little doubt that these pipes embody a transformation of a once sacred tobacco-related Indian trade system into a craft industry that assisted Native peoples in their adaptation to a world at first shared with but eventually dominated by a culture which viewed itself as separate from, and superior to, their traditional world. Pipes may not have ethnicities, but they can carry symbolic import in their decoration and use that negotiates among a plethora of cultural meanings–both then and now. These pipes, like the tobacco they contained, originated in Virginia’s Indian cultures and represent wonderfully the gift of the “Indian Queen.” They were, in some cases, transformed by English manufacturing techniques, English and African decorative motifs, and they were probably smoked by male and female English, African and Indian servants and tenants in 17th-century towns and plantation quarters throughout the Chesapeake. They contain a nearly perfect symbolic record of the creolization of Virginia’s early Colonial peoples. They beg the question of the disappearing Indian, and they deconstruct the notion that our culture has developed from separate red, white and black histories.

There have been a great many archaeological sites recorded in Virginia which are almost certainly habitations of late 17th-century, 18th-century or 19th-century Indians. Lewis Binford and Gerald Smith both recorded a number of 18th-century sites along the Nottoway and Meherrin drainages. Some of Westwood Winfree’s sites on the Mattaponi and Pamunkey Rivers are certainly historic Indian settlements. The highly important Camden Site, tested by MacCord, has now been more completely surveyed and listed in the National Register by Hodges and McCartney (*), but very little intensive excavation has yet been undertaken. Hodges demonstrated the remarkable potential of historic Indian sites with her excavation of a 19th-century trash deposit on the Pamunkey reservation that was filled with both Colono-Indian and European ceramics of the late 18th- and early 19th-century period. MacCord’s (*) early test of the 18th-century John Green site has never been followed up by a major study, nor has Beaudry’s (*) initial work at Fort Christanna. Prehistorians have debated the possible relationship between the so-called Luray Focus of the Shenandoah Valley with the historic Shawnees for decades, but there has been little attempt to identify and excavate 18th-century Indian-related sites in western Virginia. MacCord recorded a number of French and Indian War forts but, with one exception, there have been no systematic excavations. The fact seems to be that the state’s “prehistoric” archaeologists don’t “see” Indians when European artifacts become common in the sites, and the “historical” archaeologists lose interest if the site proves to have anything to do with Indians. A valuable history keeps falling through the intra-disciplinary cracks.

The blind spot towards Indians in modern historical writing has been perpetuated by archaeological interpretations. I can perhaps best illustrate the “yawning disinterest” many historical archaeologists have in the subject of Indians with a true story. At an annual meeting of the Society for Historical Archaeology, which contained a fascinating session on Hudson’s Bay Company posts and forts, I overheard a conversation between two Chesapeake archaeologists which, I presume, embodied a common sentiment. Speaker 1, looking over the program for the following day, opined sarcastically “Oh great! I really can’t wait to go to this session and hear about a bunch of guys selling blankets to Indians.” Upon which Speaker 2 answered, “Why aren’t they giving this paper in some prehistoric meeting. Nobody in the SHA cares about this stuff.” Of course the session was well-attended, indicating that Speaker 2 knew not whereof she spoke. But both spoke volumes about the biases of some of Virginia’s historical archaeologists. If Indians were to be involved, the paper belonged in a “prehistoric” meeting. And I doubt that the bias stops at the Virginia state line.

I also recall hearing a story from a colleague–a former Virginian–a historical archaeologist who found herself perplexed at first when a survey in Alabama had revealed “European” artifacts and pearlware pottery in a place and time where records had recorded only inhabitants of the Creek Nation. This colleague was smart enough to recognize that her training in historical archaeology had not prepared her to know what she should expect from early 19th-century Native American sites in the Southeast. I wonder just how many unrecognized Native American dwellings have been recorded throughout the region as 19th-century “farmsteads” and late 18th-century “tenant houses.” I am heartened to see a slow but steady increase in the number of papers dealing with Native Americans at conferences of the Society for Historical Archaeology. Unfortunately, it seems that a great many of these result from studies done by archaeologists who would probably classify themselves as “prehistorians,” and the result is that these studies are often less than successful examples of historical archaeology.

Perhaps if the effects of blindness towards Indians on the part of historians and archaeologists were confined simply to limiting the usefulness or truthfulness of academic writings, there would be little need to concern ourselves. Those interested in Indians could simply continue to write about them and publish their works in journals read by other scholars interested in Indians. But the effects of scholarship are more profound than that. By maintaining the myth that Indians disappeared or dissolved in the face of a massive onslaught of European and African disease and culture, our works continue to inform erroneous public interpretations of American culture.

Not only do we see no Indians in the Colonial Williamsburg of today, where conscientious scholars may differ in opinion about the importance of such an interpretation, we see no Indians in the Museum of American Frontier Culture in Staunton, Virginia. The frontier museum has already acquired and reassembled farmsteads from Ulster, England, Germany and the Shenandoah Valley at their site in Staunton. The message the museum tells is that the American farm is the product of a cultural blending of these Scots-Irish, German and English traditions. These farms are staffed by living-history interpreters who present to hundreds of thousands of tourists each year, a view of life on the Shenandoah and Appalachian frontier. The problem is that the American farm is a mid-19th century farm. In the mid-19th century, the American frontier was in New Mexico, Oregon and Hawaii. The settling of the Valley frontier lasted between ca. 1720 and 1790, and every day of that seventy-year period was a day that involved Indians (refs: Kegleys Va. Frontier, Kercheval, Doddridge**).

The Frontier Museum includes no Indian traders or Indian hunters, or Indian agents, or blockhouses to defend against Indians. Traveller’s accounts and memoirs of the frontier settlements in the backcountry describe German and Scots-Irish communities in which women ran around quite naked, anointed with bear’s oil, while men wore breechclouts and moccasins. Men also put on war paint and deerskins as they joined their Indian friends in wars against their Indian enemies. And yet the Frontier museum depicts women in bonnets and aprons, and men in traditional “English” peasant clothes: the hard-working yeoman who, having vanquished the heathen along with the primordial forest, have become our mythical ancestors.

Nearly every frontier settler in the Virginia backcountry knew Indians by name, traded with Indians, fought alongside and against Indians, fortified his or her homestead against Indian attacks, and personally experienced or knew of neighbors and relatives captured or killed by Indians. The Valley literally teemed with Shawnees, Catawbas, Delawares, Susquehannocks, Senecas and Cherokees for at least three seasons out of every year of the 18th century. But it seems we can’t even see Indians on the frontier anymore, and this is not simply regrettable as an oversight, it is a whole-cloth Disneyland fabrication of our history and culture.

Nor were Indians confined to the frontier. In the 1720s, one-third of the scholars at the College of William and Mary were Indians. In the 1770s Indians frequented the marketplace and waterfront in Richmond, and in the 1780s Catawbas and Shawnees came to Richmond to draw supplies from the public stores. In October of 1768, Governor Botetourt paid 2 shilling 6 pence “to the Indians for earthen pans”–this being just one of dozens of documentary mentions of the Colono-Indian pottery trade. At Colonial Williamsburg the last royal governor is remembered primarily for having removed the powder from the magazine, but in 18th century Virginia he was most resented for his protracted and bloody war against the Shawnees under Chief Cornstalk–a war that most Virginians felt was designed to detract them from their growing Revolutionary sentiments.

In today’s Williamsburg, Peyton Randolph is remembered as the builder of one the town’s finer houses and as president of the Continental Congress, but Randolph made his reputation as a leader partly through his more youthful venture of raising a militia of gentlemen to fight Indians in the Piedmont and Valley during the so-called French and Indian War (Isaac: 154). Of course that war had little to do with the French as far as Virginians were concerned. It was yet another in a string of Indian wars that ran unbroken by as much as a single decade of peaceful relations between 1622 and 1790.

The Mythic Structure of Indian History and Archaeology

It is by now axiomatic that western thought is dualistic: some, of course argue that all human metaphysics are dualistic at root. But Jacques Derrida has, I think, provided an interesting insight into “Western” metaphysics since the mid-17th century: that being that the terms of the binary opposition are unequal. Ours is not simply a white and black structure, but one in which the second term of the opposition is conceived as a lacking of, a negation of, or as less than, the first. One can be dressed or undressed, but not “unnaked.” Perhaps one of the most fundamental dualisms is us:them. In this case theyare “not us.” And this is the root of the mythic cycle of Indian history written by those who consider themselves to be “us” about those considered to be “them.” Indians are “the other,” and are forever approached as outside, distinct from, and, in the last analysis, less than, us.

Francis Jennings (1975) put his finger on the problem when he identified the running theme of Indian-white relations as perceived by, and somewhat driven by those who considered themselves to be civilized, versus those they considered to be uncivilized (savage, or barbarian). (Note that one can be “uncivilized,” but not “unsavage”). Jennings further notes that the attributes of the “civilized” cannot be pinned down to anything other than the “us” of the us:them dichotomy. Other authors (see Jordan 1968) have tried to argue that color was important; that a basic white:non-white dichotomy was inherent in English culture of the 16th and 17th centuries, or that the real dichotomy was Christian:heathen. Jennings, however, astutely points to English attitudes towards the Irish, who were white, Christian and, in nearly every respect, culturally, economically and socially similar to the English, except they did not have a single over-arching, nearly omnipotent monarchy. Thus they were distinguished as different, as savage or barbaric. Primarily, however, they were other. They were “them,” not “us.”

Today, Virginia myth still tends to conceive of Virginians as “English,” a gloss that carries throughout most of these United States to characterize the dominant subculture. Virginia Colonial history is, therefore, “English” history. And this despite the fact that “by the end of the colonial period, as the Revolution loomed on the horizon, roughly half the inhabitants of the Thirteen Colonies had no English blood in their veins” (Nash 1982: 200-201).

If Indians are very clearly present in the historical record and historical writing of the 18th century and early 19th century, but are largely absent today, perhaps we can recognize a time period in which our conception of our history–the “us” in the us:them: dichotomy–came to be defined. If I return to Swem’s Index, it is apparent whenthis change occurred. As I mentioned, the Colonial and early Federal records are brim-full of Indian references. There is, however, a severely sharp decline in Indian reference after the beginning of the 19th century. Perhaps the passing of the 18th century, after all, is what really marks the passing of Indians from our history. Perhaps the conclusion of the Revolution, the end of Pontiac’s Rebellion, the fixing and immediate breaking of the permanent boundary at the Allegheny Front, the successful thrust of Virginia’s land speculators into the Kentucky and Ohio countries…perhaps all of this represents the end to Virginia’s “Indian problem.” No doubt all of this figures into the equation, but I feel there is something else at work here. Something structural as well as historical. With the dawn of the 19th century, we began to define ourselves as Americans. In that definition we had firmly installed the fundamental concept of liberty, but we installed it–especially in the South–in a system with a terrible internal conflict: race slavery.6

In post-Revolutionary southern America, the us:them became white:non-white. In fact, the racial category “white” is largely a fabrication of this period. During the Colonial period people belonged to a variety of ethnic groups and social categories: better sorts and lesser sorts, Germans, Jews, Scots, English, Negroes, Catawbas, Iroquois, Civilized, Savage, Doctors, Lawyers, Slaves and Indian Chiefs. But nobody was “white.” “White” as an ethnic entity was constituted at the end of the 18th century, along with its “inferior” complement, “black” (or Negro), as a pole in a structural pair. The term “white” is very rare in earlier documents, but it rapidly became common after the Revolution. The new dichotomy differed from the old us:them structure in that now it meant, quite simply, free:slave, white:black. This was the origin of racism as we’ve come to know it in American life, and its genesis is not some Colonial or ancient heritage, but a newly interpreted modern concept born with the origins of American nationhood. Southern Indians were caught up in this racism. There was too little room for “coloreds” or “creoles” in much of the South, including Virginia. Shades of gray were eliminated in the white:black constructs of the Sambo Laws.

The more dynamic Indian peoples were subject to harsh “removals” throughout the South. Where remnant communities exist many local whites, even today, consider the Indians to be blacks. Exceptions occur with the Cherokees and Catawbas who were among those considered to be “civilized tribes” in the 19th century. William S. Willis (1971), among others, has argued that throughout the 18th century explicit white policy promoted black hatred among some southern Indian groups–notably the Cherokees and Catawbas–as a “divide and rule” strategy. It worked. Many Cherokees and some Catawbas took black slaves, which is one of the reasons they were called “civilized” by their white neighbors.

Many southern Indians even today are biased strongly against blacks and strongly deny and resent any implication of black-Indian or white-Indian “mixing.” This makes for a difficult situation in trying to understand biological and cultural creolization among whites, blacks and Indians. Throughout the 19th century and, especially, during the Jim Crow days of our present century, Indians were forced to choose acculturation to white status, or be forced into legally inferior “colored” status, or be removed forcibly from their lands if they persisted in maintaining a strong ethnic identity, or to remain hidden, quiet, and largely undemonstrative of their “otherness.” Many of Virginia’s Indians responded with this last choice. The “disappearing Indian” did not fall solely in the face of pandemics and land-hungry colonists. They faded into the population. They became white or black, but not Indian.

Some of Virginia’s Indians are only now reasserting their Native identities. While some have remained on their ancestral lands, lands which have been honored as Indian lands by the Virginia government formally since the 17th century, their public images today tend towards Pan-Indian identities emergent in the various 20th-century Neo-Indian revitalization movements. Many Northeastern Indians retained relatively clearer ethnic identities even though contact has been as long and as destructive. I suggest it is because the harsh legalized racism of the South was absent. Virginia offered little choice, especially after Nat Turner’s revolt. One was white or colored. Shades of gray were rarely permitted. Indians living on the reserves remained legally viewed as Indians by the state government, but those who left the reservation had to fight for white status or be considered non-white, and therefore, subject to enslavement. 7

It is only in recent years that members of the Amherst County Indian “band” have come to identify themselves as “Monacans.” Early 20th-century ethnologists, who found these folks living on marginal, hilly lands along small tributaries to the James, reported that they were known as “Issue,” a name which was viewed by the Indians and their white neighbors alike as a derogatory term meaning “mixed-blood.” The name–especially as it would be pronounced by a country Virginian–probably derives from Isha (or Iswa, Esaw, Issa and other cognates), a Siouan term meaning “river people.” It is the name which the Catawbas and some of their Piedmont Siouan relatives have called themselves for many centuries. Some of the Amherst Indians have claimed that they were driven from a village home on the James River by the flu epidemic early in this century. The place they describe as their home is near the traditional location of a major 17th-century Monacan Indian settlement. Even today, few Virginians know of the existence of this group, and yet it seems likely they have been in or near their present location since before the coming of white and black peoples to the Virginia Piedmont.

As Helen Rountree conducted research for her excellent study of Powhatan Indian history, she “discovered” a group of Nansemond Indians living in the City of Portsmouth. Though unknown as Nansemonds to outsiders, this family group has kept their identity through genealogical reckoning in their ancient family bible, through which they trace their descent from *, King of the Nansemonds in 17*. Many other groups living beyond the reservations, such as the Rappahannocks, have long made us aware of their existence, but there seems to be a new pride in Indian identity with each passing year and each new state-wide gathering. Virginia’s pow-wows are attended annually by more people who are more and more willing, anxious even, to proclaim their Native American heritage.

What to do?

A plural history needs plural interpretation. Historical archaeologists, with few exceptions, are white. That need not be a complete roadblock to our recognition and interpretation of Native American culture history. Changing the complexion of those who work in the field is something we must hope for, and work towards, but the position that white and black archaeologists cannot interpret Indian history is an invitation to continue ignoring the Indian portion of our common culture. Such an idea is not only a throw-back to outmoded Whorfian hyper-relativism, it’s a colossal ethical cop-out. Our self-identification as historical archaeologists, as distinguished from prehistorians isa real problem. The segregation of Indian history into separate compartments, subdisciplines, journals, and readings of the past is ideologically conditioned behavior stemming from a mythic view of the world and the academic enterprise. We need to teach a different culture history, and to teach it, we need to interpret it. To interpret it, we need to divest ourselves of–or at least critically scrutinize–certain beliefs concerning Indians, their disappearance, their non-existence, and their very nature in the creolized world we inhabit. To redirect the future, we must rewrite history, and to leave behind violent mythical constructs, we must replace them with new ones. We need to come to an understanding that, in terms of our shared histories and commingled cultures, “we” and “they” are one.

***

Three years ago a “white” couple appeared at my excavation in progress at Curles Plantation. They were pilgrims in search of a past, an identity, roots, as we’ve come to call the sense of history that comes from recognizing that each of us is entitled to a genealogy. The man, a retired military gentlemen, was paying homage to his ancestor, Richard Randolph of Curles Plantation on James River in Virginia, a descendant, as was he, of Pocahontas. There had been three generations of Richard Randolphs of Curles, but his ancestor was one who had moved to Georgia in 1787 and had established himself as the founder of a town there…the town in which my guest had grown up. This Richard had arrived with a substantial fortune and had purchased two plantations. Eventually he had built himself a fine home in the town as well– a home that still stands as an historic landmark.

His grand-daughter Maria–a name descended through the Curles line from Maria Beverly Randolph–had lived to 100 or more, and is still a character remembered by some of the town’s ancients. While Richard has become a totem ancestor, Maria provides the flesh of memory that makes ancestors real. She was very tall, of a dark complexion, and, until her death, retained her jet-black hair that, according to the denizens of this Georgia town, marked her as a descendant of Pocahontas. My problem was this: I could account for all three generations of Richard Randolphs who had been masters of Curles during the 18th century. The first had died at Bath in England. The son and grandson had lived their entire lives and had died in Henrico County, Virginia. Who was this Richard of Curles in Georgia? It didn’t take a heroic effort to solve the puzzle.

Ryland Randolph, the brother of the second Richard of Curles, son of the first, inherited the family’s ancestral estate known as Turkey Island, adjacent to Curles (Figure 6.12). He had tended the family cemetery, assumed the role of family genealogist and had devoted his adult life to embellishing the mansion until it became perhaps the greatest estate ever to sit on the James River. The official genealogies list Ryland as having died unmarried and without issue, but the truth is that he had taken a slave woman as his wife–a not uncommon act of the time. By his wife Aggie, Ryland had borne two sons. Though their names are not recorded the naming practices of the Randolphs suggest they were Ryland and Richard.

Upon is death in 1784, Ryland left a life estate to Aggie his widow and his total bequest to his two sons. Thus the family estate and graveyard of one of the wealthiest and most powerful of the Virginia gentry families passed to two “illegitimate” mulatto children. Also not uncommon was the response of Ryland’s brother Richard who contested the will, and took Aggie and her sons into slavery at Curles. Two years later Richard’s health grew weak and he made his will. He gave to the sons of his brother Ryland their freedom, and some unspecified settlement–with the proviso that they leave the state and make no further claims on Turkey Island or other family properties. The following year a Richard Randolph of the plantation called Curles on the James River in Virginia arrived with his fortune in Georgia where he established a town, a lineage of families, and a reputation that persists to this day.

This Richard and his grand-daughter Maria were as they said–born of the great houses of Curles and Turkey Island, true descendants of Pocahontas–that is, Rebecca. They were also the children of Aggie, whose fate remains unknown but imaginable. This Richard Randolph of Georgia and his Maria are, to me, what we all have become. For we are a nation of mongrels, half-breeds and creoles. We are all Rebecca’s Children. Not Pocahontas, the mythical Indian princess, but Rebecca, the real woman whose life bridged the divide between two worlds and changed all of our histories forever.

1. This chapter grew out of a paper prepared for the session “Is Historical Archaeology White,” chaired by Carol Cowen-Ricks, at the 1991 Society for Historical Archaeology Conference in Richmond.

2. The name “Pocahontas” has been translated as “little wanton,” and the term is used by Strachey as he described her cavorting with young Englishmen in the fort yard at Jamestown.

3. Gender role distinction among most Woodland Indian groups was severe. It is clear from numerous accounts that the role of women and children in captive torture was, indeed, meant as an insult to the captive and his people. When senior males were captured and held as prisoners rather than being put to death, they were sometimes referred to as “women,” just as the Iroquois referred thus to the Delawares, whom they dominated, in the 18th century.

4. Some remarkable ethnohistorical writing exists for Virginia’s Indians, almost exclusively dealing with the Powhatans in the early 17th century period. Of particular note are the writings of Lurie (**), Fausz (**), Feest (**), and the recent work of Rountree (**) whose second volume is the first modern attempt to acknowledge the presence of Indians in Virginia history up to the present. Earlier ethnologies of importance include those of Speck (*) and Stern (*). A very well researched historical work by Woodward (1969) is flawed by the author’s thoroughly biased perspective on Indians. Nonetheless, her book uses some primary materials not found elsewhere.

5. The paper referenced above (Mouer et al, in press *) also deals at length with these pipes. In contrast with the pottery, which appears to have been made in a few Indian settlements and marketed throughout the colony, there is ample evidence that the Chesapeake pipes were made on plantations during the 17th century. This simply underscores the documentary evidence for intensive, nearly daily transactions between Indians and colonists, including the quartering of Indians as laborers, servants, and slaves on plantations.

6. Slavery in southern America was race slavery. A number of students have compared slavery systems throughout the world and have found, in each case, that slave status was nowhere else as tied to a racial category as in the southern United States of the Antebellum era. Degler (*) stresses “that the liberal ideology of the United States drew a sharp line between freedom and slavery which was all too easily transferred into another duality between black and white (*).” Degler compares southern American slavery with Brazil’s slave system. and finds that manumission in the American South was far less common, creole communities were smaller and more rare. There was little tolerance in the South for “people of color,” and slavery was more typically defined along racial lines. Dunn (*) makes the Point that treatment of slaves was harsher in the Carribean and South America , but it was generally easier to get out of the state of slavery, and free blacks were not feared or hated. In the Southern U. S., manumission was infrequent, slave culture more restrictively defined, but internal treatment of slaves generally milder. In sum, slavery in the southern U. S. was more racially defined. This all follows Nash’s (*) observations on higher rates of creolization–and generally higher status of creoles -elsewhere in the hemisphere as compared with the Southern states. One striking parallel to the American South is the Cape Colony of South Africa, which had no plantation system as such, but had racially defined slavery (*). The point is made again and more specifically by Kolchin (*) who compared Southern slavery with Russian serfdom and other world slavery systems. He concluded that the Antebellum South was the only place in his comparative sample where racism was such an important part of the slave system, and he suggested a racist continuum from white serfdon through creole systems of Jamaica, St. Domigue and Brazil, with the American South at the racist extreme.

7. For a blood-curdling example of one the power of one determined and doggedly racist bureacrat to erase Indian identity in 20th-century Virginia, see Rountree (*) and *.

Can there be a Pragmatic Archaeology?

Comments on Carol McDavid’s  “Archaeology as Cultural Critique: Pragmatism and the Archaeology of a Southern United States Plantation”

Originally published in 1999 in Philosophy and Archaeological Practice, Perspectives for the 21st Century, edited by Cornelius Holtorf and Hakan Karlsson, University of Goteburg Press.

 

The current movement to make the social sciences “hermeneutical” rather than Galilean makes a reasonable, Deweyan point if it is taken as saying: narratives as well as laws, redescriptions as well as predictions, serve a useful purpose in helping us deal with the problems of society. In this sense, the movement is a useful protest against the fetishism of old-fashioned, “Behaviorist” social scientists who worry about whether they are being “scientific.” But the protest goes too far when it waxes philosophical and begins to draw a principled distinction between man and nature, announcing that the ontological difference dictates a methodological difference.

Richard Rorty, The Consequences of Pragmatism, pp. 198-199

In her essay, Carol McDavid has taken on a the very difficult (and paradoxical) task of describing the ways in which a philosophy known for its non-foundationalism can serve as a foundation for archaeological practice. Pragmatism is a peculiarly American philosophy that has many different colorations; however, certain important threads are found through the 19th and 20th century writings of Pragmatists. Some of these threads certainly appeal to present-day sentiments among many humanists and social scientists. These threads tend to be nondualist, anti-foundationalist, and anti-essentialist. Pragmatism bridges so many of the dualities and paradoxes of social sciences, in part by discrediting or ignoring them.

The realist-idealist debate, in the eyes of a Pragmatist, is a kind of fruitless academic pissing contest that cannot be won. The endless worrying about whether our conceptions and models of Reality adequately conform to “real” Reality might be Pragmatically characterized as a kind of mental masturbation that goes nowhere and does nothing, and so is not really worth the energy put into it except as entertainment. To the Pragmatist, “the proof is in the pudding.” As McDavid asserts, language is important to Pragmatists inasmuch as language and meaning are tied to action, and so McDavid finds herself engaged in the test of a true Pragmatist. She has to advance her profession and career, or else she cannot hope to continue to engage in the socially and personally meaningful action she has set out for herself. But advancing her career means writing essays in compilations of essays on archaeological theory…works which (as a class) by their narrowness, their lack of social effect, their mission of self-aggrandizement, are all contrary to, perhaps detracting from, McDavid’s noble goals of enlivening a broader conversation about archaeology and its subjects. Her essay uses words like “praxis,” “Rorty” and “anti-essentialist,” and these are certainly not words in the normal vocabulary of Brazoria, Texas.

This dilemma is exactly the sort of nut the Pragmatic philosopher loves to crack…for it is a false dilemma based on the dualizing of language for “professionals” versus “the public,” and similar dichotomies such as “theory versus practice,” and “data versus interpretation.” We tend to create such contrasting pairs and then cling to the notion that we can value one or the other poles of the duality, but never both…nor can we work fluidly along a dynamic continuum between them. And so we see dilemmas where they needn’t be. How can McDavid be a “scientist” concerned with what is real if she is being a “humanist” concerned with such fuzzy, “subjective” ideas as “voices,” and “conversations?”  The “Realist” shouts “She can’t!!!…either it’s politics or science…it can’t be both!!”  The “Idealist” shouts “Screw science…archaeology for the People!!” The Relativist shouts (or mutters) “Well in this situation it’s like this, but in the other situation, well, then, it’s different, so it all depends…” The Pragmatist doesn’t concern herself. She stays away from such fruitless conversations, and does what she does in order to advance her goals.

While this sounds self-serving, McDavid correctly points out that, for more than a century, Pragmatists have tended to exhibit inclusive and empathetic perspectives and passions. This seeming paradox probably proceeds from non-dualist thinking. Pragmatists are less likely to divide themselves from the rest of the world. A Pragmatist archaeologist, like McDavid, is likely to identify with or care about or feel responsible to communities beyond her own group (whether her “group” at any moment be a racial, educational, class, or professional category). Does this mean that Pragmatism is simply another form of Leftist practice like neo-Marxist Critical Theory? Not at all. While Pragmatists may often seem “liberal,” there is nothing in the philosophy that dictates that this must be the case. Richard Rorty (1993) notes that he has been criticized by the Right for his bleeding-heart liberalism, while Leftists accuse him of being a heartless Neo-Conservative for his refusal to join in the “America Sucks sweepstakes.” Pragmatists, it seems, are bound to be characterized by their politicized colleagues as unprincipled fence-sitters, changelings or opportunists.

In the realm of American politics, for example, Bill Clinton reasonably well exemplifies Pragmatism. What is Clinton’s “philosophy?”  Many would argue he has none, that he is a shameless, poll-watching opportunist. And yet from the beginning he has pursued countless opportunities to break down barriers of race, gender, age, handicap or other categorizations that traditionally lead to exclusion in the halls of power. Clinton does not write, talk or debate the idealized rightness or wrongness of his viewpoint, he simply acts in the best way he can to achieve a goal he believes in with the tools at hand for the moment. As a result he is hated by ideologues on the Left and on the Right. Rorty “enjoys” a similar notoriety among some scholars for his unwillingness to argue about the primary, essential nature of any specific position in morality or politics. To some casual observers, McDavid’s actions and wishes to incorporate a multitude of perspectives into her interpretive frame, and to conceive archaeology more democratically than its elitist origins would once have allowed, may make her appear positively Gramsciian in her approach. But there is a difference. She may hold dear some liberal moral convictions, but she has not elevated them to either a theory or a method that is based upon any particular socio-political assumptions.

One of the most important points McDavid’s essay makes (far more important, I believe, than any statements about Pragmatism) is the critical insight concerning the patronizing arrogance that often accompanies archaeological “presentation” and “education.” I invariably cringe when I hear colleagues speak about “educating the public;” they inevitably mean “indoctrinating the public.” What’s more, McDavid deserves credit for taking this insight beyond some sort of purely academic critique. She is not simply substituting a “conversation” word-game for an “education” word-game. In fact it is her actual experience in trying to hear, work with, and participate in an interpretive community that includes descendents of the people who occupied the Levi-Jordan quarters—or others like them–that provides the insight in the load carried by traditional approaches to “educating the public about archaeology.” It is her action–and the actions of her fellow interpreters–that leads her to glimpse the face of the beast of Relativism…and to stare it down. How, she asks, do we deal with others’ “realities” if they directly contradict our own.  How does she stare down this monster–the one that scares the britches off all the hard-science set? She says she’ll deal with things on a “case-by-case basis.” That is, she’ll cross that bridge when she comes to it. She won’t allow imaginary “logical conclusions” to become practical limitations to reasonable action. Good for her.

Recently, a traditional scholar made a genuine arse of himself at a public lecture. The anthropologist spoke of narratives of African slaves in the “Middle Passage,” and acquitted himself and his long and productive career brilliantly…until the question-and-answer period following the lecture. An African American in the audience asked for the speaker’s opinion about Ivan van Sertima’s (1976) thesis that Africans arrived in the new World long before Europeans, and that they affected the early civilizations of Mesoamerica. Many Afrocentrists are, quite understandably, attracted to van Sertima’s ideas. This lecturer blew off the questioner, and the whole notion of Africans in Precolumbian America. He simply refused to get into a discussion and, in so many words, piled They Came Before Columbus on the trash-heap of fringe-zone archaeological books like Chariots of the Gods (von Daniken 1999). I don’t believe–and the majority of Americanist archaeologists don’t believe–the evidence warrants concluding there were Africans in Pre-Columbian America. I also feel that archaeologists should grasp every opportunity to share their knowledge and insights with others, but it is nothing but arrogant and idiotic to simply cast aside a work or an idea that has such a grip on so many people. It does not help provide a better understanding of the lives of Africans in America–a task to which this scholar has dedicated his life’s work–and it simply reinforces a widespread notion that scholarship is insensitive, irrelevant, elitist tripe. Needless to say, I prefer McDavid’s approach. She is likely to have much greater success evolving a body of interpretation that is meaningful to all of her communities–archaeologists as well as Levi-Jordan neighbors.

As I mentioned early on, the “proof is in the pudding.” I didn’t feel I could comment upon Carol McDavid’s essay without taking time to examine what the essay is about. This is represented, at least in part, by the web site she has created for the interpretation of the Levi-Jordan Plantation project (http://www.webarchaeology.com). I cannot help but wonder how the community she identifies with actually relates to this web site  (or if they do at all), but it is a very good beginning, and I hope others will take a long look at it.

I am fond of the newer flavors of Pragmatism—those of Rorty and Nancy Fraser, especially. They present us with a way of thinking and acting that accommodates postmodernist, poststructuralist, feminist, Marxist, antiracist, and other critiques of the traditional perspectives spawned by the Enlightenment. And yet, this Pragmatism does not require us to subscribe to a party line, or believe in the emptiness of every thought or endeavor, or to embrace the equivalence of all opinions. Can a view of the world that believes in not promoting foundational beliefs serve as a foundation for archaeological practice? Sure it can. Pragmatists don’t worry about such paradoxes.

Richard Rorty

  1. Consquences of Pragmatism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  1. “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids,” In Mark Edmundson, ed., Wild Orchids and Trotsky: Messages from American Universities, pp. 289-305. New York: Penguin Books.

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