Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Tsenacommacah People

This posting begins a series on people from Tenakomakah (Tsenacommacah), that area that included Powhatan country between what is now known as the James and York Rivers, which may have also been known by the Spanish as Ajacan, during the time of initial European contact.

"The sundry Marks of the Chief Men of Virginia"
By Theodore de Bry [probably after John White]
Engraving from book page
Plate 23 from "America," Part 1 (1st ed., Frankfurt, 1590–1607)
Image courtesy of

No extant John White painting corresponds to this print. The caption explains the symbols as marks worn by men to show their affiliation: "whereby it may be known what Prince's subjects they be, or of what place they have their origin."

[The following is an excerpt from:]

Re-‘Interpreting’ the Role of the Cultural Broker in the Conquest of La Florida, 1513 - 1600

Considering the important part played by interpreters in facilitating contact, communication, cultural exchange, and conflict resolution in the early colonial period, there have been surprisingly few individual or collective historical biographies of these influential individuals.[1]Although a few anthropologists and historians recently have taken up the cause of these “conduits” of the colonial frontiers, many of their monographs tend to depict these individuals either as “victims”--“weathercocks buffeted by the shifting political winds in one or both cultures,” or as “heroes”--“master mediators” who had been “culturally-enlarged” into “150% men.”[2]While there is some truth to both of these views, neither characterization does justice to the colorful lives, complex roles, and checkered careers of the diverse peoples that ethnohistorians have begun to lump together under the generic label of“cultural brokers.”[3]To date, only one historian, Eugene Lyon, has directly addressed (if briefly) this important subject in the context of the Spanish borderlands frontier as this paper will endeavor to do in a more comprehensive manner.[4]

In examining the culturally ambiguous characters that served as interpreters in La Florida’s early contact period, it is not possible to construct a single composite portrait that would sufficiently represent the diversity of their motives, choices, and life experiences.On the other hand, at least six distinct types of interpreters may be identified: abducted Amerindians, captured and redeemed Castilian castaways, foreign prisoners, youthful catechists and missionaries, acculturated Indian caciques and cacicas, and Spanish garrison soldiers.As often as not, these individuals did not choose the career of cultural broker, but were kidnapped, enslaved, or compelled to assume the role of interpreter or intermediary by Spanish conquistadores and Indian caciques.Since the interpreter figured prominently in the negotiation of truces and peace-settlements, conquistadores and caciques had to be prepared either to win the go-betweens’ loyalty with generous gifts and kindnesses, or to coerce their cooperation with threats of punishment.Although the linguistic skills of these “middlemen” may have made them more sensitive to the cultural values of both parties, it is important to remember that the extraordinary individuals acting as mediators were ordinary men and women in pursuit of their own self-interest.Collectively, however, their individual actions and “personal dramas influenced, changed, and sometimes even dictated the course of colonial development.”[5]


[1].Many of the older generation of “patrician” historians writing about the conquest of the Americas extolled the virtues and trumpeted the accomplishments of a few “great white men” to the exclusion of all other voices and traditions.The histories they and their “consensus school” successors wrote considered only the deeds of the European “discoverers,” explorers, conquistadores, colonial founders, and missionaries as worthy of their pens and ignored or marginalized the more culturally ambiguous men and women of the borderlands frontier.Not surprisingly, the only full-length historical biographies written in this period about interpreters focused on European diplomats: Paul A. W. Wallace, Conrad Weiser, 1696-1760, Friend of Colonist and Mohawk (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1945) and Nicholas B. Wainwright, George Croghan: Wilderness Diplomat (Chapel Hill, N.C.: 1959).Only in the last year has any historian compared and contrasted the experiences of European and Native American interpreters in a single work.See James Hart Merrell, Into the American Woods: Negotiators on the Pennsylvania Frontier(New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999).

[2].Anthropologist Malcom McFee was the first to argue that the bi-cultural individual had more options and less constraints in his article, “The 150% man: a product of Blackfoot acculturation,” American Anthropologist 70 (1968): 1096-1107; historian J. Frederick Fausz took the opposite view, depicting these individuals as “marginal men” in his article, “‘Middlemen in peace and war’: Virginia’s earliest Indian interpreters, 1608-1632,” published in the Journal of American History 75 (June 1988): 41-64.Anthropologist James A. Clifton quickly counter-attacked, debunking the “older popular stereotype” that “culturally marginalized people became psychologically diminished,” and arguing instead that as masters of two (or more) cultures, interpreters actually became “culturally enlarged.”See the introduction to his Being and Becoming Indian: Biographical Studies of North American Frontiers (Chicago: Dorsey Press, 1989), 28-29.Other historians have chosen--much like their “cultural broker” subjects--to straddle the fence between the warring camps, rather than take one side over the other.See, for example, Nancy L. Hagedorn and Alan Taylor’s characterization of a Stockbridge Mohican mediator, respectively published as “‘A friend to go between them’”: the interpreter as cultural broker during Anglo-Iroquois councils, 1740-1770,” Ethnohistory 35 (Winter 1988) and “Captain Hendrick Aupaumut: the dilemmas of an intercultural broker,” Ethnohistory 43:3 (Summer 1996).

[3].Historian Margaret Connell Szasz, ed., Between Indian and White Worlds: the Cultural Broker (Norman: London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994), and linguist Frances Karttunen, ed. Between Worlds: Interpreters, Guides, and Survivors (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, c.1994) wisely ignored the debate altogether, and as a result have produced more informative and complex look at the varied lives, survival strategies, and experiences of the interpreters included in their studies.

[4].See “The captives of Florida,” and “Cultural brokers in sixteenth-century Spanish Florida,” in Eugene Lyon, ed., Pedro Menéndez de Avilés (New York: London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1995), 171-190, 329-336.

[5].See the editors’ introduction in David G. Sweet and Gary B. Nash, ed., Struggle and Survival in Colonial America (Berkeley: University of California Press, c.1981), 1-13.