Grandmothers, Guns, and Smith’s Generall Historie

In Chapter 8 of John Smith’s A Generall Historie of Virginia, New England and the Summer Isles, Wahunsenaca (or Powhatan) repeatedly asks Smith to disarm himself and to leave his guns on his boat when he comes to visit Werowocomoco. 

Earlier in this story, as I’ve written about elsewhere, Smith had been adopted into the Powhatan nation and made Werowance of Capahowosick, a fishing village. There is no evidence to suggest that Smith so much as visited Capahowosick; instead, he remained stubbornly based in Jamestown, a poor land for agriculture that was surrounded by brackish water, and he continued to show up on Wahunsenaca’s doorstep, requesting (and receiving) provisions, such as turkey, venison, and corn.  

By Chapter 8, Wahunsenaca has grown tired of this arrangement. He is annoyed with Smith for refusing to take up his citizenship obligations. He wants to know why Smith hasn’t been fishing, why he hasn’t moved the English to Capahowosick, and why he isn’t contributing to the network that, at this time, sustained all the Powhatans. Smith is taking and taking from the network but refusing to contribute – and the English are still unwilling to put down their guns. 

To Wahunsenaca’s first request, in this chapter, that the English give up their weapons, Smith responds, “As for swords and gunnes, I told you long agoe I had none to spare; and you must know those I have can keep me from want.” 

Wahunsenaca did indeed know that the English used their weapons to get food. According to Mattaponi oral history, Smith and his colleagues were infamous throughout Tsenacomoca for their habit of showing up unannounced in villages, holding their guns to the heads of the villagers, and demanding provisions. And so he replies to Smith, there is no need for your guns; we are all Powhatans here. “Many doe inform me,” he says, “your comming hither is . . . to invade my people, and possesse my Country. . . . To free us of this feare, leave aboard your weapons, for here they are needlesse, we being all friends, and for ever Powhatans.” 

This debate culminates in Wahunsenaca’s beautiful, famous speech – 

What will it availe you to take that by force you may quickly have by love, or to destroy them that provide you food. What can you get by warre, when we can hide our provisions and fly to the woods? whereby you must famish by wrongdoing us your friends. And why are you thus jealous of our loves seeing us unarmed . . . and are willing still to feede you, with that you cannot get but by our labours? Thinke you I am so simple, not to know it is better to eate good meate, lye well, and sleepe quietly with my women and children, laugh and be merry with you . . . then be forced to flie from all, to lie cold in the woods, feede upon Acorns, rootes, and such trash, and be so hunted by you, that I can neither rest, eate, nor sleepe; but my tyred men must watch, and if a twig but breake, every one cryeth there commeth Captaine Smith; then must I fly I know not whether; and thus with miserable feare, end my miserable life, leaving my pleasures to such youths as you, which through your rash unadvisednesse may quickly as miserably end, for want of that, you never know where to finde. Let this therefore assure you of our loves, and every yeare our friendly trade shall furnish you with Corne; and now also, if you would come in friendly manner to see us and not thus with your guns and swords as in to invade your foes. 

Here, in what is among the most important moments from this text, Smith refuses Washunsenaca’s powerful vision of their relationship and of a balanced future. He shrugs off Wahunsenaca’s assertion that the Powhatans need not die for the English to live. He rebuffs the Powhatans’ generous and unwavering extension of peace and friendship. And he disingenuously disavows the violence that would logically render both of their lives woefully unsustainable. “Had we intended you any hurt,” Smith arrogantly replies, “long ere this we could have effected it. . . . [We] wear our armes as our apparell.” 

Once more, Wahunsenaca refuses to back down, insisting, “If you intend so friendly as you say, send hence your arms, that I may beleeve you.” 

What happens next in the text is important.  

Smith decides that Wahunsenaca wants to “cut his throat.” Against all evidence to the contrary, he describes the other Powhatans as suddenly “brusting with desire to have the head of Captaine Smith.” He is so deeply unsettled by Wahunsenaca’s steadfast refusal to accept English weapons as natural part of their relationship that he believes his life is in danger. 

None of this is true or even otherwise supported by Smith’s description of events. There is ice in the Pamunkey river, and so the English are forced to stay the night in Werowocomoco. At this famous juncture of the text, Smith claims that Pocahontas visits him, in secret, to betray her father and to rescue the English colonial endeavour for a second time, this time warning Smith that he should immediately flee the village before he is violently killed. [Contexts provided in Mattaponi oral history all but confirm that this meeting didn’t happen.] As the night advances, Smith is overcome by fear and paranoia. When “eight or ten” Powhatans visit with evening refreshments, Smith makes them “taste every dish” to ensure the food has not been poisoned – which they do, quite happily, before returning to their own beds, oblivious to Smith’s violent state of mind. In the morning, despite Smith’s continued perception of danger, no one stops the English from getting onto their boats and sailing away. In fact, the Powhatans carry baskets of corn onto the boats to help. 

I recently taught a portion of this text in an Atlantic World class and found this chapter to be a productive entry point into a larger discussion about guns, policing, and the historical problem of Settler / Indigenous power dynamics in moments of tension. When Smith is told, repeatedly, to disarm – to demonstrate his supposedly peaceful intentions by removing weapons from his relationship with the Powhatans – he responds as though violence has been done to him. In other words, when his relationship to an important source of personal power and security is challenged, he feels he has been threatened when he hasn’t. He becomes fearful and paranoid. He imagines himself into a context of imminent danger and conflict, and his feelings within this context render him immediately dangerous to the Powhatans, who remain oblivious and therefore vulnerable to his panic. 

My thinking on this issue crystallized over the course of the last few weeks as the Wolastoqewi grandmothers have been subject to repeated police checks in Officer’s Square, where they are sitting with their ancestors, asserting stewardship over artefacts that were found during an excavation. During these checks, the grandmothers have been approached by city police wearing flack jackets and carrying mace and sidearms. Four officers have taken four police cars to the square to make themselves seem as large and as menacing as possible. Sometimes the officers will fan out to surround the grandmothers and to ensure they can’t all be seen.

The grandmothers themselves are often in ceremony and are in the process of asserting their sovereignty — practices that have always been “unsettling” for Canadians.

If we can accept that Indigenous sovereignty has always been a “problem” for Canada and for Canadian law, that it’s capable of “unsettling” Canadians – and that people, when unsettled, sometimes feel threatened and react with violence – then we must immediately remove weapons from these encounters. We cannot pretend, as Smith did, that guns are a natural part of our apparel. They are not. We cannot pretend, as Smith did, that showing up with a gun is not an already violent act. It is a violent act.

Settlers have been bringing guns into nation-to-nation encounters with Indigenous people since the first permanent English settlement in the Americas. 413 years after John Smith showed us how this violence can escalate without any offence or sign of aggression from Indigenous people, we need to ask why the city of Fredericton is using armed police to perform diplomatic work that they are neither trained nor authorized to perform. And if this inherently aggressive behaviour does not reflect our collective values, then we need to do something about it.

Family Separations, John Smith’s General Historie, and our Empathy Crisis

Halfway through John Smith’s General Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (1624), the Powhatans and the English colonists exchange children. By this point in Smith’s text, the English have been customarily adopted into the Powhatan nation, a sophisticated polity that, before the arrival of the Virginia Company, consisted of more than thirty distinct peoples.

Smith describes the exchange as follows:

The next day [Christopher] Newport came a shore and received as much content as [the Powhatans] could give him: a boy named Thomas Salvage was then given unto [Wahunsenaca], whom Newport called his sonne; for whom [Wahunsenaca] gave him Namontack his trustie servant, and one of a shrewd, subtill capacatie. (p. 107)

In a forthcoming special issue of AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples — one dedicated to adoption and Indigenous citizenship orders, edited by Damien Lee and Kahente Horn-Miller — I discuss this moment in the context of Powhatan kinship and adoption protocols. This is just one of many scenes from Smith’s text that captures Wahunsenaca and the Powhatans in the process of solidifying social bonds that subsequent generations of colonists and Settlers should have had a difficult time breaking, had they at all understood or respected what was happening around them.

Time and again in Smith’s text, the English colonists struggle to glean or take seriously the implications of the Powhatans’ actions. Always teetering on the brink of starvation, the colonists remain frustratingly and, at times, absurdly oblivious to the able willingness of the Powhatans to demonstrate how to live happily and healthfully in Tsenacomoca.

Largely, my article is about the specific narrative process through which Smith disparaged, destroyed, and moved to supplant Powhatan kinship structures and obligations, consolidating patriarchal governance structures against existing Indigenous laws. When discussing the above mentioned scene in which the two sides trade children, I use sources from Mattaponi oral history, along with this excellent thesis on Indigenous customary adoption practices, to argue that through the exchange, the English entered into a common Powhatan familial arrangement — one that was generally reserved for close relatives, and one in which the needs of children and adults were weighted pretty much equally. From the perspective of the Powhatans, “a period of time living with another family member” would have been “a regular part of the upbringing and education of a child” (Trerise, p. 172). Such exchanges maintained and strengthened kinship relations within and across the diverse Powhatan polity, valuing and empowering children as useful and important diplomatic agents, building intimacy across distance and difference, and providing valuable opportunities for each community to learn more about the other through peaceful (or non-threatening) intermediaries.

Because I couldn’t discuss every aspect of this scene in my article, which, again, focuses primarily on Smith’s descriptions of Powhatan customary adoption practices, I wanted to explore another angle here — specifically, the idea that Smith, Newport, and the other English colonists would have been familiar with their own practice of exchanging children, and that their culturally specific practice might have been a significant part of what prevented them from understanding or empathizing with the Powhatans.

Briefly, in early modern England, family units were structured to uphold the power and authority of the state. Patriarchy infused and policed dominant social views, acting as what Stephanie Coontz calls, in her History of American Families, “the glue that bound individuals to households and households to communities” (p. 79). The primary function of colonial households was to mold children into subservient adults who would likewise reproduce the authority of patriarchal governance. In these structures, fathers — like political leaders — essentially had no hard and fast obligations to the people they ruled over. They were simply the authorities, and their households were the rigidly stratified, highly regulated environments that could train children to live obediently within the established hierarchies of English society.

This is why English families would commonly exchange children — not to forge or to deepen kinship relations or to empower children as important members of society but to actively circumvent parents’ natural instincts or impulses to respect or care tenderly for their own kids. Parents immersed in this political culture found it much easier to raise, train, and indeed abuse children who were not their own — children who they themselves did not love. Thus, for the good of the state and its structures, English children would be routinely separated from their families and sent to live among strangers. These separations would in turn help perpetuate the continuous and systematic reproduction of a society that, as a whole, lacked certain essential qualities — such as empathy.

[Here’s just one article about how childhood trauma and/or abuse affects empathy.]

Anglo-American colonial literature is in many ways the story of one society’s collective failure to extend empathy to another. But this legacy of childhood trauma also manifests today in the structures and functions of settler state bodies. In the context of contemporary U.S. political theory, the patriarchal family unit is in many ways similar to what George Lakoff describes as the “strict father” family model, which he locates at the “center of the conservative worldview.” In Moral Politics, he writes,

This model posits a traditional nuclear family, with the father having primary responsibility for supporting and protecting the family as well as the authority to set overall policy, to set strict rules for the behavior of children, and to enforce the rules. The mother has the day-to-day responsibility for the care of the house, raising the children, and upholding the father’s authority. Children must respect and obey their parents; by doing so they build character, that is, self-discipline and self-reliance. Love and nurturance are, of course, a vital part of family life but can never outweigh parental authority, which is itself an expression of love and nurturance—tough love. Self-discipline, self-reliance, and respect for legitimate authority are the crucial things that children must learn.

Once children are mature, they are on their own and must depend on their acquired self-discipline to survive. Their self-reliance gives them authority over their own destinies, and parents are not to meddle in their lives.

According to Lakoff, this model is where contemporary conservative morals come from, and it informs the way in which today’s conservatives view government. But Anglo-American Settlers of all political stripes have been using and abusing children to uphold, reproduce, and demonstrate the authority of this governance model since before Jamestown, and one of the most chilling ways in which we have always done this work is through the removal of children from their parents.

These separations help carry our empathy crisis into forever. And so we respond to refugees by closing our borders or by ripping babies from their families. We find new and creative ways of illegitimately removing Indigenous children from their communities and kin. And we live quietly under laws like the U.S. Family and Medical Leave Act, which guarantees only up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave to new parents, systematically frustrating breastfeeding efforts and/or confounding the production of oxytocin, the hormone responsible for the regulation of “social memory and cognition, emotion recognition, empathy, and attachment.”

Settlers urgently need to step back from their lives and think about the kind of world they want to live in. We do not understand what we are doing to others and to ourselves and why, what our governments are doing and why, or how much violence and suffering stems from our refusal to face or heal from our own suppressed histories.

Could a better understanding of those histories help us finally stop treating others so shamefully? I don’t necessarily know the answer to this, but it’s what I want to try.