The Far East has its Mecca, Palestine its Jerusalem, France its Lourdes, and Italy its Loreto, but America's only shrines are her altars of patriotism -- the first and most potent being Jamestown; the sire of Virginia, and Virginia the mother of this great Republic. -- From a 1907 Virginia guidebook
The quadricentennial of the Jamestown settlement will be noted this spring. Whether it will be celebrated is a freighted question. Virginia has gone to some expense and effort remembering the founding settlers of 1607. Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor is serving as honorary chair of what is being called "America's 400th Birthday." There will be musical performances, lectures and seminars. The Queen of England will visit on May 4 and 5.
But emblematic of our troubled understanding of our past and our present discomfort with our national identity, the powers that be in Virginia have decided not to refer to these and other observations as "celebrations." Instead, they will be called commemorations. "You can't celebrate an invasion," declared Mary Wade, a member of the Jamestown 2007 organizing committee. The native people were "pushed back off of their land, even killed. Whole tribes were annihilated. A lot of people carry that oral history with them, and that's why they use the word 'invasion' . . ."
Virginia is expecting many visitors to the reconstructed Jamestown settlement -- and it is worth the trip. We've taken the children a couple of times. But the timid, apologetic tone of some of the exhibitions detracts from the experience. As Edward Rothstein reported in The New York Times, "The Indians, we read, were 'in harmony with the land that sustained them' and formed an 'advanced, complex society of families and tribes.'"
Rothstein continues: "English society -- the society that gave us the King James Bible and Shakespeare . . . is described as offering 'limited opportunity' in which a 'small elite' were landowners." England, they tell us, suffered from social dislocation, unemployment, difficult working conditions, and so forth. The exhibit goes on to suggest that Virginia's history evolved out of the "interaction" of three different cultures: British, Native American and African.
This sort of hokum has become de rigueur at American museums. By all means, let's be honest about American history and admit that American Indians were often mistreated (broken treaties, displacement, murder). The Trail of Tears deserved its name. But the description of Powhatan culture as "advanced" is ridiculous. When the two cultures met, one was hundreds of years more advanced than the other. If the Powhatans had been further along, they would have prevailed. They certainly didn't lack the will.