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

Pocahontas, the Survivor - Native American and Postcolonial perspectives

Pocahontas’s child is crucial to the story’s meaning.

Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism


Gerald Vizenor

Certainly the most important revisionist perspective on “America’s Ur-misce- genation story” (Edwards, “United Colors” 147) is that of Native Americans, which has been articulated quite forcefully since the 1960s. Native American revisionism of the myth of Pocahontas challenges, as in the case of Columbus, the very notion of an American beginning on the terms that have been described so far. Of course, there is not one single homogenous Native American response to the multi-layered ‘white’ mythologization of Pocahontas; we can, in a brief overview, identify several tendencies which range from the deconstruction of popular stereotypes of Native Americans in general and of Pocahontas in particular to various new interpretations of the historical moment of cultural contact between Pocahontas and the English settlers/invaders and its consequences.

Many contemporary Native American writers have tried to imagine what Pocahontas could or might have thought or said as we simply do not have any records. The Native American poet Paula Gunn Allen has given a voice to Pocahontas in one of her poems titled “Pocahontas to Her English Husband, John Rolfe,” in which the speaker reminisces:

Had I not cradled you in my arms Oh beloved perfidious one,

You would have died.

And how many times did I pluck you From certain death in the wilderness - My world through which you stumbled as though blind?


Still you survived, oh my fair husband,

And brought them gold Wrung from a harvest I taught you To plant. Tobacco.


I’m sure

You wondered at my silence, saying I was A simple wanton, a savage maid,

Dusky daughter of heathen sires Who cartwheeled naked through the muddy towns Who would learn the ways of grace only By your firm guidance, through Your husbandly rule:

No doubt, no doubt.

I spoke little, you said.

And you listened less [...]

I saw you well

I understood your ploys and still Protected you, going so far as to die In your keeping - a wasting,

Putrefying Christian death - and you,

Deceiver, whiteman, father of my son,

Survived, reaping wealth greater

Than you had ever dreamed

From what I taught you and from the wasting of my bones. (8f.)

The poem outwardly simulates the poetic mode of Puritan poetry by women (such as Anne Bradstreet’s well-known 1678 poem “To My Dear and Loving Husband”) in addressing the beloved partner; yet it does not recreate the conventional topoi of modesty and submission, nor does it, as does Bradstreet’s text, describe a harmonious and passionate union - rather it constructs a stance of superiority on the part of Pocahontas vis-a-vis her husband John Rolfe. Referring to the strategies of colonial othering, the speaker reverses well-known stereotypes: it is he who is ‘the other’ - ignorant, childlike, helpless, and dependent; it is she who rescues him not once, but many times; and yet, in his world/discourse she does not have a voice. Ultimately, she holds him responsible for her death, which is intricately connected to his acquisition of fame and fortune.

Pocahontas’s “bones” mentioned in the last line of the poem are also at the center of Gerald Vizenor’s postmodern rendering of the Pocahontas story in The Heirs of Columbus. Picking up the debates on repatriation triggered by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990, the novel has a protagonist who seeks to retrieve and rebury the remains of Pocahontas, yet is murdered by an alliance of the Brotherhood of American Explorers and intelligence agents referred to as “the savages of intelligence.” In this novel, which tries to deconstruct the master narrative of colonial expansion in myriad ways, much is at stake in the retrieval of these bones - which miraculously vanish in a shamanistic ritual from the rooms of an anthropological museum and thus from the archive of Native American dispossession.

From a Native American perspective, the story of Pocahontas is not a story of conversion, assimilation, and sacrifice, but a story of Native survival. This, of course, fits into a general postcolonial framework, as Shohat and Stam have pointed out (cf. Unthinking). Pocahontas not only survived the first contact but delivered a child that may be seen as the beginning of an alternative “crossblood” American genealogy (cf. Vizenor, Landfill Meditation). Such a counterhegemonic construction of ‘national’ beginnings stands in stark contrast to the strange cultural practice of whites claiming a remote - not to say metaphorical - Native American ancestry (one, however, that is contained in their ‘whiteness’), such as those two million Americans who claim to be Pocahontas’s kin. Apart from genealogically documented lineages there seems to be a longing for

Pocahontas as an ‘honorary white’ founding mother (stripped of her indigenous otherness) that registers in the ambiguous cultural trope of the “Indian grandmother,” which has been described by Vine Deloria as the Indian grandmother complex:

Whites claiming Indian blood generally tend to reinforce mythical beliefs about Indians. All but one person I met who claimed Indian blood claimed it on their grandmother’s side. I once did a projection backward and discovered that evidently most tribes were entirely female for the first three hundred years of white occupation. (Custer 3)

The trope of the ‘Indian princess’ as an ancestor figure extrapolates from Pocahontas to become “everyone’s Indian grandmother.” Native American (Sho- shone/Chippewa) poet nila northSun puns on the same trope that is no longer restricted to the Pocahontas figure - in fact, the Cherokee used to be the most ‘fashionable’ tribe to be descended from for a long time. In her poem “stupid questions” the speaker quips:

you know, my great-grandmother was a Cherokee princess

(you know, she must have been one helluva whore cause everybody has the same greatgrandmother) (217)

Responding both to white colonial mythmaking and to the marginalization of women within Native American studies, Paula Gunn Allen suggests “putting women [like Pocahontas] at the center of the tribal universe” in order to “recov- er[] the feminine in American Indian Traditions” (Sacred Hoop 264). For Allen - who takes the rescue scene seriously - the fact that Pocahontas could successfully intervene on behalf of John Smith and against her father shows the absence of European patriarchal structures and the power women had in gynocratic tribal societies such as those of the Algonquians (cf. Pocahontas 6, 172-3). Pocahontas is imagined as part of a female continuum in the context of Allen’s specific brand of Native American feminism.

Native American revisionism of the Pocahontas myth takes place in all kinds of media and art forms including poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and musical and visual culture; examples would be Native American composer George Quincy’s mini-opera Pocahontas at the Court of James I and Choctaw Diaries (2008) or R.L. Morgan Monceaux’ visual image titled “Matowaka” (1992).

Illustration 5: Pocahontas in Contemporary Art

R.L. Morgan Monceaux, Matowaka (1992).

A postcolonial perspective on the Pocahontas narrative is provided by the Caribbean-American author Michelle Cliff in her novel No Telephone to Heaven (1987). Her displaced mixed-race female protagonist with the telling name Clare Savage is Caribbean-born and lives in the United States as well as in Britain. At the British seaside she encounters Pocahontas:

She stood and walked toward it [the monument, HP] - from a distance her training suspected allegory. Bronze. Female. Single figure. Single feather rising from the braids. Moccasined feet stepping forward, as if to walk off the pedestal on which she was kept. A personification of the New World, dedicated to some poor soul who perished in pursuit of it. Clare came closer. It was not that at all. No; this was intended to signify one individual and mark her resting place. The letters at the base of the statue told her this ... Pocahontas. (136)

Cliff’s narrator tries to de-allegorize and demythologize the figure of Pocahontas, to come to her ‘face to face’ and to see her as another human being. Downsizing the myth in favor of the individual is a strategy that many contemporary authors have employed.

In addition, Native American representational critique in different shapes and media is flanked by white-authored critiques of the romantic myth. Early on, Leslie Fiedler has examined the troping of an “anti-Pocahontas” (Return 81) in American culture. The American writer John Barth, for instance, substitutes this negative image for the idealized version of Pocahontas in his postmodern novel The Sot-Weed Factor (1960); in Barth’s revision of the Pocahontas myth, Smith has to rape Pocahontas at her father’s request in order to save his life and that of his men. Barth’s highly ironic text points to the misogynist and racist streak in American culture and literature that performs a degradation of Pocahontas into “anti-Pocahontas,” from redeeming Princess into prostitute, “a whore begging to be screwed” (Fiedler, Return 153). From a postcolonial perspective, this hyperbolic representation of the first contact may be read as an indictment of the predominantly violent nature of European-Native interactions. Against this background, mythologizing one Native American woman as an “Indian princess” is but a form of displacing white guilt and has never prevented the denigration and negative stereotyping of Native American women in general, thus re-affirming the virgin/whore dichotomy firmly established in Western patriarchal culture. As Leslie Fiedler points out, “princess” in colloquial diction for a long time was the derogatory expression for a Native American prostitute (ibid. 81). Similarly, expressions such as “squaw” and even “Pocahontas” have frequently been used as slurs, as the Native American actress Irene Bedard, who lends her voice to Disney’s Pocahontas, remembers well (cf. Edgerton and Jackson, “Redesigning” 95).

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