The Construction of the Male Dominated Narrative of Pocahontas

I have always had an interest in the lives and culture of Native Americans. In the stories that have been told about the violent struggles between settlers and the Native Americans, I have always found my sympathies lay with the Native Americans. As a very young child, I must admit this probably stemmed from Disney’s Pocahontas, but my parents always taught me, when I was old enough to understand, the hardships and discrimination the Native American nations were forced to endure, most notable the Trail of Tears and the forced movement away from their ancestral land to reservations on the other side of America.

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Pocahontas and Thomas Rolfe, Lebrecht History / Bridgeman Images

As a bit of a whim recently, I decided to investigate where this anti-Native American sentiment came from. I guess this was probably from my knowledge that their culture is focused around hospitality and the greater good of the tribe. Did the early settlers experience this side of the Native American culture and how did things manage to turn violent? These were the questions I wanted to answer for myself. What became clear is that despite the early settlers portraying the Powhatan nation as pagans and fundamentally different, Pocahontas was regarded, and has continued to be, a large part of the founding story of English settlement in America.[1] Unfortunately this founding myth has been based on what has been written by the white men who encountered her and her people, as Pocahontas left no written record for herself. This has meant that a very Western and male view has been placed upon her.

Pocahontas’ narrative has had two main focuses placed upon it: her friendship and/or possible relationship with John Smith and her eventual conversion and marriage to John Rolfe.[2] These have tried to place her in contexts that could be understood from the contemporary viewpoint that the New World was a female figure, hence the naming of Virginia by Walter Raleigh.[3] From this viewpoint various images were used to symbolise the New World. First, the New World became a female gendered space to suggest that it was just passively waiting to be conquered by male settlers.[4] Secondly, America was later represented by a Native American princess in some form, whether this be an unclothed one, one as the daughter of Britannia or as the embodiment of qualities that would later be attributed to United States sovereignty.[5] With Pocahontas’ role as the first female native the settlers mixed with, it was clear that she easily mixed with these ideas. It has led to the story of her and her relationship with the early settlers to be retold more “than any other American historical incident” during the colonial period.[6]

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Simon de Passe, Captain John Smith, Private Collection, Peter Newark American Pictures / Bridgeman Images

The first misunderstanding about Pocahontas that has been inherited is how she became acquainted with the early settlers. A letter from John Chamberlain to the Hague ambassador during her visit to James I’s court in 1617 suggested that Pocahontas had “ben with the King and graciously used, and both she and her assistant placed at the maske. She is on her return (though sore against her will)”.[7] Chamberlain in his description of Pocahontas made her seem to be at the mercy of others but still able to have her own will.[8] The theme of Pocahontas using her own will derives from the belief that settlers had about her early visits to Jamestown. They believed she had flouted the will of her father in order to meet and know the new Englishmen. However, this was a misunderstanding of how Powhatan society and Pocahontas’ own status within it worked.

Pocahontas was the favourite of Powhatan’s many children. This was because her mother was his love match made before he became the paramount chief of the Tsenacomoca nation. In Powhatan tradition, it was custom for the paramount chief to marry women from each of the tribes he controlled to create unity and relationships between each of them.[9] No woman was forced to marry any man, not even the paramount chief, but it would have meant higher status for the woman and it was only a temporary match until they gave birth.[10] Once they had given birth, they were free to choose whether to stay in the capital Werowocomoco as a wife of the chief, or to return to their village to find a love match.[11] This meant that Pocahontas meant a lot to Powhatan, even more so as her mother died giving birth to her. Due to this bond that subsequently formed between Powhatan and his daughter, it is clear that if Powhatan had believed the English to be a threat, he wouldn’t have let a child, and his favourite child at that, go to Jamestown. Instead, in the Powhatan culture, a child was often placed at the front of a group entering the village of another tribe to show they came in peace.[12] Pocahontas was also still a child and so would have had supervision, as a royal child, she would have also had a large amount of bodyguards as well as Powhatan’s permission to visit the Jamestown settlers.[13] As selfishness and the advancement of personal welfare over others and the greater good of the tribe was seen as one of the worst things a person could do, it would not have been in Pocahontas’ nature to go to Jamestown against her father’s will.[14]

The band of warriors and priests that would have accompanied Pocahontas were showing the English settlers the general sharing of food and hospitality customs that were second nature to their people.[15] This helped the unprepared settlers to survive during the periods of harsh weather and poor health that threatened the entire existence of the settlement. However, it is also due to the status the Powhatans placed on John Smith. Just as the settlers saw Powhatan as a King, the Powhatans saw Smith as the ‘chief’ of the English.[16] The position that the Powhatan’s viewed Smith as having sheds light onto the infamous saving of Smith by Pocahontas.

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Pocahontas saves Captain Smith’s Life (19th century), Private Collection / © Look and Learn / Bridgeman Images

There has been much debate about whether Pocahontas really did save John Smith from a near death by the hands of her father. What makes the difficult to understand is Pocahontas real motivations behind the act, we only have Smith’s side of the story.[17] The early seventeenth century writings on Jamestown are surprisingly quiet on the matter. Smith himself didn’t even mention the rescue until 1624, seventeen years after the event was supposed to have occurred and ironically after both Pocahontas and Powhatan had died.[18] Among many interpretations that have been put forward, most have been sceptical about its occurrence. It may have been added for political reasons after the 1622 massacre of the settlers by the Powhatans as a response for the increasingly violent treatment towards them, in order to vilify the Powhatans.[19] Another option for it not appearing is that if it did happen, Smith had purposefully emitted it for as long as possible as it ruined his reputation as a military and brave man.[20] Philip Barbour suggests a more logical explanation that runs alongside the contemporary explanation given by the narrative passed down through the Mattaponi people’s oral history. He argues that the rescue did happen but as Smith was not aware of local customs, he misinterpreted the situation. Both the Powhatans and the settlers have been known to misinterpret each other’s cultures in these early interactions as they could only base their knowledge of it on their own assumptions as a comparison to their own culture. Barbour argues that it may have been a ritual re-enacting a fake execution, rather than an actual one, to show that he was accepted by the nation and was seen as a chief in his own right.[21]

Unfortunately, we may never know the exact truth of some of the things that occurred in those early stages of the English colonisation of America. What is known that the early settlers began a narrative that was to be seen as mainstream until fairly recently (in some ways still is). It paved the way for Pocahontas being the embodiment of voluntary cultural connection and assimilation, whilst forgetting that she was in fact a captive between the ‘rescue’ and her marriage to John Rolfe.[22] This narrative became especially prevalent in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when a lot of the legend of Pocahontas started to become invented by various writers.[23] The creation of this narrative coincided with wider circulation of John Smith’s writings, which portrayed her as saviour of Jamestown, and also to create a founding myth to justify the increasingly despicable treatment of Native Americans.[24] Pocahontas’ marriage to John Rolfe was also more prevalent at this time to provide evidence of the supposed harmony and less cultural violence more interracial marriages would have created.[25]

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The marriage of Pocahontas and John Rolfe in 1613, From The History of Our Country, published 1899 / Bridgeman Images

The only thing that is certain is that without contact with the English, Pocahontas’ life would have carried on much the same as her predecessors. Powhatan’s sister was a village chief in her own right, so Pocahontas probably could have easily followed in her footsteps.[26] She also wouldn’t have died from the Western disease that killed her, of which there is also much speculation. However, whatever the ifs and buts of her life, she has remained one of the key figures of Native American history and I hope will continue to be for centuries to come.

[1] Paul, H., The Myths that Made America (London: Trascript Verlag, 2014), p. 89.

[2] Paul, H., The Myths that Made America, p. 90.

[3] Paul, H., The Myths that Made America, pp. 91-92.

[4] S. Schulting, Wilde Frauen, Fremde Welten: Kolonisierungsgeschichten aus Amerika cited in Paul, H., The Myths that Made America, p. 92.

[5] E. McClung Fleming, ‘The American Image as Indian Princess, 1765-1783’, Winterthur Portfolio, 2 (1965) cited in Paul, H., The Myths that Made America, p. 93.

[6] Tilton, R. S., Pocahontas: The Evolution of an American Narrative (Cambridge: Press Syndicate, 1994), p. 1.

[7] John Chamberlain, The Letters of John Chamberlain, ed. Norman Egbert Chirelstien cited in Robertson, K., ‘Pocahontas at the Masque’, Signs, 21.3 (1996), p. 552.

[8] Robertson, K., ‘Pocahontas at the Masque’, p. 552.

[9] Custalow, L. and Daniel, A. L., The True Story of Pocahontas: The Other Side of History (Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing, 2007), p. 5.

[10] Custalow, L. and Daniel, A. L., The True Story of Pocahontas, pp. 5-6.

[11] Custalow, L. and Daniel, A. L., The True Story of Pocahontas, p. 6.

[12] Custalow, L. and Daniel, A. L., The True Story of Pocahontas, p. 26.

[13] Custalow, L. and Daniel, A. L., The True Story of Pocahontas, p. 25.

[14] Custalow, L. and Daniel, A. L., The True Story of Pocahontas, p.

[15] Custalow, L. and Daniel, A. L., The True Story of Pocahontas, p. 23.

[16] Custalow, L. and Daniel, A. L., The True Story of Pocahontas, p. 24.

[17] Paul, H., The Myths that Made America, p. 95.

[18] Paul, H., The Myths that Made America, p. 96.

[19] Paul, H., The Myths that Made America, p. 90.

[20] G. Mackenthun, Metaphors of Dispossession: American Beginnings and the Translation of Empire, 1492-1637 cited in Paul, H., The Myths that Made America, p. 96.

[21] Philip Barbour, Pocahontas and Her World cited in Paul, H., The Myths that Made America, p. 90.

[22] Paul, H., The Myths that Made America, p. 102.

[23] Paul, H., The Myths that Made America, p. 102; Tilton, R. S., Pocahontas: The Evolution of an American Narrative, p. 10.

[24] Paul, H., The Myths that Made America, p. 103; Tilton, R. S., Pocahontas: The Evolution of an American Narrative, p. 11.

[25] Tilton, R. S., Pocahontas: The Evolution of an American Narrative, p. 12.

[26] Tremblay, G., ‘Reflecting on Pocahontas’, Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 23.3, p. 121.

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2 thoughts on “The Construction of the Male Dominated Narrative of Pocahontas

  1. Very strong posting.

    Smith likely didn’t meet her until Rolfe brought her to London. Many doubt his life was ever really in danger with the Powhatan, more likely he was put through a warrior’s ritual.

    Smith uses a similar tale of being rescued by a young woman earlier in his life story.

    Like

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