The emperors have no clothes
Arriving on our shores on May 3, Queen Elizabeth II met with the kind of pomp and circumstance to which she is accustomed. The monarch enjoyed much fanfare as special guest at the 400th anniversary commemoration of Jamestown, the first permanent English colony. She was greeted by admiring well-wishers, including many Virginia tribal representatives. She celebrated the 104 Englishmen, boys and investors who landed on the shores of what we now call Virginia in 1607. She attended the Kentucky Derby and was the guest of honor at a lavish white-tie state dinner at the White House.
It was a lovely visit. That is, if one does not require that official denial be checked at customs. The queen expressed sympathy for those affected by the April 16 killings at Virginia Tech. But she issued a royal punt when acknowledging her kingdom's role in importing African slavery and conducting state-sponsored genocide of Native peoples following the establishment of the permanent Jamestown colony. ''Human progress rarely comes without costs,'' she offered. It was a dismissal of the most regal sort, and it helped set the tone for the weeklong commemoration of the arrival of Europeans to the Virginia coast.
Queen Elizabeth II wasn't the only one who was affected by historical blindness. President Bush welcomed her to the White House on May 7 with choice words of his own. ''The settlers at Jamestown planted the seeds of freedom and democracy on American soil,'' said the president, ''and from those seeds sprung a nation ... '' This ill-advised remark, although no doubt true in his mind, evokes an agricultural metaphor that is not just historically false but disingenuous, too.
In fact, it was the clan-based, longhouse-dwelling people who had knowledge of the land of the so-called New World. And after the colony's establishment, it was African slaves who tended the real ''seed of freedom'': tobacco. If the foreigners grew anything for themselves, it was the early model of American imperialism - exploiting shared resources to gain wealth for the state. This model flourishes today, the state's hypocrisy honed by consumer-citizens who generally feel no sense of responsibility for the original sins committed by their own ancestors. No doubt this would been a source of resentment for any Native people attending the White House gala, had any been invited.
Just as the legend of Pocahontas as Jamestown's princess heroine persists in the American psyche, so does the myth of the ''founding'' of an American society based on the rights and dignity of the individual. Pocahontas, the young daughter of Powhatan, is almost always depicted as a love-struck teen who willingly aided the hungry settlers. Rarely is she imagined as a child captive of an unhygienic man twice her age. She is one among the handful of internationally famous Native Americans because she helped the Europeans in their quest to tame the New World. The message is loud and clear: The only good Indian is one who can be honored as a symbol of colonization, of a better life through white ''civilization.''
The Virginia tribal representatives who attended the events commemorating Jamestown hoped they might raise awareness of their survival and contemporary struggle for federal recognition. Despite a few vague euphemisms regarding historical or modern relations with the tribes of the Chesapeake area by either the queen or President Bush, the Native peoples of Virginia were clearly not considered one of the nations that, as Bush said, ''hold fundamental values in common.''
Many of the Associated Press photos that week did not bother to identify the names, titles or tribes of the Native people, giving the strong impression that they were considered cultural entertainers and not fellow leaders. With all the planning it takes to develop an 18-month-long commemoration, it seems the Native people were allowed to contribute in an effort to stave off tribal protests during this brief but amply publicized period of high tea and white gloves. After all, in the upper crust where the British and American royalty reside, there is nothing more impolite than polluting rarified air with charges of racism or hypocrisy.
''We're frustrated by repetitions of the same story, given a PC stamp,'' said Gabrielle Tayac, Piscataway, a historian in the Office of Research at the National Museum of the American Indian. ''There was a missed opportunity here, and a tentativeness to fully admit how dangerous the moment of Jamestown was.''
The United States is engaging in its own form of long-distance nation-building these days, nurturing a strain of democracy that is not taking well to desert soil. In Iraq, modern-day American settlers are draining the native land of its natural and human resources with one hand while purporting to plant seeds of freedom with the other. The task of spreading liberty is not without sacrifice, as the Native survivors of Jamestown know. As Bush might say, you can't fry up an omelet without breaking a few eggs. Even for him, it is an arrogant dismissal of royal proportion.