While driving across southern Virginia last week, we came across an incredible–and incredibly disturbing–billboard. As part of a tourist campaign commemorating the 400th anniversay of the “first landing” in 1607, the billboard featured a Native American man. Beside him were the words, “Their sacrifice made our nation great,” and the man is wearing a black T-shirt saying, “Thank You Powhatan.” (You can see the T-shirt in the middle of the collage here.)
The semantics here is stunning: “Sacrifice” clearly connotes an air of intentionality and volition, as if the First Nations were “laying down their lives” for their friends! Did the British also make “sacrifices” for the American colonies in the revolutionary war?! This is just the sort of revisionism that makes it easier for white American to feel better as they spend hundreds of dollars touring western Virginia and celebrating the story of the nation that would be hailed as “a city on a hill.”
This goes to prove Paul Ricoeur’s point that history is always told by the winners (and re-told, and even re-invented!). But who knew a tourist bureau could exhibit such a Baudrillardian cynicism about meaning.
[Update: Jeff Sharlet’s Revealer points to a story about “the Other Jamestown party” which decries the ‘official’ commemorations as “politically correct” (!). Incidentally, a week and a half ago I was stuck in traffic on this very road.]