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.


Weighing in on “Canadian exceptionalism”

I really love the group blog and #twitterstorians movements in History, and I wish we were similarly motivated in literary studies. Sometimes just clicking through the links in Andrea Eidinger’s weekly history roundup is enough to leave me with the same feeling of exhilaration I’ve received from the very best conferences I’ve attended. Historians know how to generate energy online.

And it finally occurred to me to contribute something. This week’s Borealia post is mine, drawn from material that is developed further in my forthcoming book. In the post, I discuss exceptionalism as a deeply ingrained and inescapable part of Settler Canadian identity, exploring its contemporaneous presence in political, religious, and nationalist discourses.

. . . Exceptionalism is premised on this fundamental if sometimes unspoken or secularized belief that the God of Israel gave the world to industrious Western peoples so they could do with it as they pleased. In Canada, this vision was officially consecrated into statehood with the adoption of Psalm 72:8 as the basis of the national motto in 1867: “He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth.” This is the same essential idea that John Locke so carefully developed in his second treatise on government, where we find what is generally treated as the definitive argument in defense of the supposedly natural rights of English colonists to conquer and acquire the world. According to Locke, the seizure of land and paranoid control of resources is not a “prejudice to any other man,” and even if “God gave the world to men in common… it cannot be supposed he meant it should always remain common and uncultivated. He gave it to the use of the industrious and rational.”

The creation of Canada was another aggressive consolidation of this self-aggrandizing mythology against “the common pot” of Turtle Island – the Indigenous perspective of land as a shared territory capable of equally sustaining all kinds of beings across generations. By adopting “A Mari Usque Ad Mare” as their unifying motto, the founders of Canada expressed their conventional belief in the right of “exceptional” people like themselves to acquire and dominate the world, signaling, too, a belief in their own principal and essential place in what was, to their minds, a predestined but unfinished tale of Western deliverance. If, decades earlier, the American Revolution had robbed the world’s most exceptional people of their supposedly “natural” right to dominance over the lands and resources that some now call the United States, those exiles had persevered in their search for the so-called promised land, casting their gaze upon the Canadian “wilderness” and on the great material bounties that were waiting in its depths. . . .

I’m grateful to Keith Grant and Denis McKim for allowing me to hang out with the historians for the week. Click through to their site to read the whole piece.