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Home arrow Geography arrow The Myths That Made America : An Introduction to American Studies
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Whose Pocahontas?

[A]n estimated two million [...] people [...] to this day trace their ancestry

back to the Indian girl.

Philip Young, “The Mother of Us All”

While we can reconstruct the process in which Pocahontas became the protagonist in a national foundational myth with universal appeal, we can also complicate these findings by tracing the myth through the ages with more attention to detail and differences. The making of this myth may have been propelled by national ideology, yet it was also influenced by other, widely differing political discourses: while Pocahontas was claimed in the 19th century as the “first mythic Indian” (Fiedler, Return 64) and enthroned as a national heroic figure, she was also claimed in the name of many other agendas.

First of all, many writers and critics have drawn upon Pocahontas as the central figure of a specifically southern myth of origin - as the “guardian angel” of the oldest American colony, Virginia (Young, “Mother” 396), and many patriotic publications have come out of this. Much scholarship by southern critics from David Garnet to Leo Lemay has time and again stressed the importance of Pocahontas in a regionalist context of southern traditions. These publications about the South and its cultural and literary traditions also deal with Pocahontas as a central figure in southern historiographic and literary texts (cf. Kindermann, Geschichte). Most comprehensively and convincingly, Ann Uhry Abrams has argued for Pocahontas as an “origin myth of Virginia” (cf. Pilgrims), which she juxtaposes with that of Massachusetts (the Puritans and the Pilgrims, to be dealt with in the next chapter). This juxtaposition - “the Pilgrims and Pocahontas” - historically unfolds as a kind of rivalry, at times even as a battle for national dominance in which the southern heritage and legacy is frequently pitted against that of New England. Uhry Abrams places the Pocahontas story as the foundational female savior tale of Virginia in contrast to the origin myths of Massachusetts’ patriarchal colony (ibid. 149). Pocahontas as a Virginian founding mother becomes particularly important in the context of the American Civil War (1861-65). In the war between North and South, Pocahontas was frequently invoked by both sides: the North tried to discredit the narrative of John Smith in order to debunk the credibility of the first white ‘Southerner.’ After 1860, authors from the North, among them Charles Deane and Henry Adams, fervently “challenge[d] the veracity of the rescue story” with a polemical “anti-Smith thrust” (Tilton, Pocahontas 172). By contrast, the South countered these attacks and affirmed the truth of Smith’s narrative, in particular the rescue scene. Over all, “Pocahontas and her narrative were crucial to the South’s growing sense of otherness” (ibid.). Constructing Pocahontas as a southern ancestress and, more literally, as a progenitrix of many members of the Virginia elite, many writers and scholars, such as James Kirke Paulding, place her among the “tutelary deities” of Virginia (Letters Vol. 1 25). As Anne Norton writes in Alternative Americas:

In the South the Pocahontas myth became increasingly expressive of a peculiar sectional culture. The chivalrous conduct in the myth recalled the Cavalier, the rank and marriage of Pocahontas assured the legitimacy of the present residents. As an Indian princess, Pocahontas united a natural, Indian, character of noble savagery and natural virtue with a conventional pre-eminence, reconciling the conflicting demands of Jefferson and an ideology derived from the Enlightenment, with the Cavalier model. As Southern sentiment for rebellion [...] increased, Pocahontas was evoked with increasing frequency. These evocations associated Pocahontas as a sectional symbol with the violent independence considered characteristic of Indians in general. (183)

Thus, the story of Pocahontas became the bone of contention in a heated controversy, and it is not without irony in this context that the United States Navy, which routinely named its battleships after Native tribes and individuals, would send its battleships Powhatan and Pocahontas (the only American warship named after a woman at this point) to serve in the war against the southern secessionists who claimed her as their ancestor (cf. Tilton, Pocahontas 146). Summarily, we have to acknowledge that the attempts at discrediting the Pocahontas narrative on the part of many Northerners during the years of national crisis failed, as by that time “the name and the accomplishments of the Indian princess Pocahontas were deeply ingrained in the collective American consciousness. By the second half of the nineteenth-century, her heroic identity was far beyond the scope of any such attempts at demythologization” (ibid. 175).

Second, in a quite different vein, Pocahontas has been cast as an early American feminist. Mary Hays’s 1803 Female Biography depicted Pocahontas as a model woman, as a “princess politician” and as a manifestation of “nineteenth-century resolute womanhood” (Dyer, “Transatlantic Pocahontas” 302). In varying versions, her story has been offered as a narrative of empowerment for women, investing her with a specifically female agency in a patriarchal context of male saber-rattling. In Charlotte Barnes’s play, The Forest Princess, we have seen traces of this feminist agenda, which often also sidesteps the hyperbolic romantic fashioning of the story in favor of presenting Pocahontas as a selfconfident, single-minded Native woman. The gender-specific implications and the feminist potential of the Pocahontas myth have been addressed by various authors at different times. Particularly in the context of first-wave feminism in the United States, Pocahontas was discovered as an ancestor figure. The dissemination of the idea and trope of the ‘new woman’ coincided with the search for a usable feminist past. While women were campaigning for their right to vote in the US (granted in 1920 by the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution), Pocahontas was featured in a number of plays and poems that used her as a model feminist: Margaret Ullmann’s play Pocahontas (1912) has the heroine self-confidently refuse John Smith’s attempt to seduce her when they meet for the last time. Nathalia Crane’s Pocahontas (1930) envisions in heroic couplets a worldwide communist conspiracy threatening the nation, a future which only the last descendant of the ‘Indian’ princess Pocahontas can avert, who in Crane’s poem is enlisted to protect and to save the American nation.

Mary Dearborn examines the uses that were made in ethnic women’s writing of the story of Pocahontas as “the single most important received metaphor of female ethnic identity” (Pocahontas’s Daughters 97) in American intellectual and literary history, and identifies Pocahontas as a signifier of American femininity as well as ethnicity and as a paradigmatic model for negotiating the intricacies of a position between two and more cultures. By examining how “gender and ethnicity function in American culture” (ibid. 189), Dearborn points to “ancestry” and “community” as crucial categories in American ethnic women’s writing that also give shape to the Pocahontas narrative; the poles of kinship/descent on the one hand and of love, marriage and consent on the other hand are the crucial aspects of her tale whose tension with each other American indigenous and immigrant ethnic women writers from Mourning Dove to Gertrude Stein, from Nella Larsen to Maxine Hong Kingston have time and again tried to articulate (ibid. 192). According to Dearborn, ethnic women writers are “Pocahontas’s daughters” in the sense that they give voice to what Pocahontas could have said in order to “fill her silence with words” (ibid. 193) in yet another appropriation of the historical figure in the context of feminist identity politics.

Illustration 4: Pocahontas Stamp

US Postal Service, Pocahontas 5ф (1907).

Whether prototypically feminine or feminist, Pocahontas is not only claimed as a founding mother by female ethnic writers but throughout also remains a national symbol, as evidenced by the 5-cent stamp that comes out in 1907 to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, Virginia. There is, thirdly, a full-fledged Pocahontas cult after World War I among a group of American modernist writers, who also discover her as an American ‘founding mother’ and as a central emblem of American indigenous traditions to be contrasted with European traditions. Vachel Lindsay’s poem “Our Mother Pocahontas” is an early manifestation of this notion. Although this poem may not be written in a specifically modernist style, it captures the mood of this modernist sentiment very well, as this excerpt shows:

Because we are her fields of corn; Because our fires are all reborn From her bosom’s deathless embers, Flaming

As she remembers The springtime And Virginia,

Our Mother, Pocahontas.

John Rolfe is not our ancestor.

We rise from out the soul of her Held in native wonderland,

While the sun’s rays kissed her hand, In the springtime,

In Virginia,

Our mother, Pocahontas. (116-117)

The Pocahontas figure is to be found in the works of many modernists. In one of his short stories, Ernest Hemingway wonders “[w]ere there two sides to Pocahontas? Did she have a fourth dimension” (“Banal Story” 334), and she appears, most prominently, in Hart Crane’s long poem The Bridge (in the part titled “Powhatan’s Daughter”), which is described by Leslie Fiedler as a “handbook of American mythology” (Return 119). The references to Pocahontas in modernist literature reverberate with the general fascination with the ‘primitive’ and the exotic in literature and art typical of that period; in its specifically American variant, this fascination pursues the symbolic appropriation of Native Americans as embodiments of a primordial, authentic way of life and thus as objects of nostalgic longing (cf. Vizenor, Fugitive Poses; Hutchinson, Indian Craze).

But whether as a Southerner or as a feminist or as modernist muse, none of these framings do affect Pocahontas’s status as a national icon; instead they seem to further magnify it. They also signal, however, the way in which the historical figure and her encounter with the English have been taken as a “blank space” (Hulme, Colonial Encounters 138) and have been used for different ideological inscriptions in different phases of American history.

 
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