Pocahontas’ Politics: The Allure of “Our National Mother” in Propaganda
Though the story of Pocahontas’ self-sacrifice is reported solely in the later writings of John Smith, the few “facts” about her legendary actions have spawned nearly four centuries of reworking and reinterpretation in American culture. Without much of an “original” to which to cling, oftentimes these accounts drastically sacrifice any adherence to accuracy and unfortunately provide more insight into the time period during which the work was written, rather than something truthful regarding Pocahontas’ life itself. In fact, whatever might be true regarding Pocahontas has been maligned throughout American history as authors and movements refit her legend to fit with their political aims. Through many retellings of Pocahontas’ life, a life poet Hart Crane once identified as being “the myth of America,” (Rennie) her true story has suffocated underneath history’s propagandistic spins.
Even when she was still alive, Pocahontas served almost as a mascot for the Virginia Company’s goals in the New World. David Stymeist, in his essay, “Strange Wives: Pocahontas in Early Modern Colonial Advertisement,” writes that when she returned to England with her husband John Rolfe, the Company financed the couple to take what would today be certainly known as a publicity tour, visiting Queen Anne and James and attending a performance of The Twelfth Night, amongst other public affairs. There was a certain allure for those considering journeying to America in the seeing the marriage between the Native American and the Englishman. It implied some sexual openness of Pocahontas and her people, which John Smith promoted in his writings by describing how the “princess” and about thirty other young Native girls pleaded him for illicit favors. The Virginia Company used this sexual lure to draw young men to its colonies, where this very intermixing was strictly forbidden, and at the same time used Pocahontas as a symbol for the good the settlers were doing in the New World. After all, she was in England, able to converse with monarchs and be baptized a Christian with a new name, “Rebecca” (Stymeist). Pocahontas was at once fetishized for her “Indianness” and commended for giving it up—this contradiction can only be explained when thinking about the her story as colonists would write it.
The legends and politics circling Pocahontas only magnified after her death. Here are some of the most notable:
1755—writer Edward Kimber’s Pocahontas narrative, the “Short Account of the British Plantations in America” appears in the London Magazine. This account is notable because it is the first to ascribe Pocahontas’ selfless actions as being out of overwhelming love for Smith. In a time of colonial friction, Kimber claims Virginia’s first settlements were “chiefly owing to this love”—America, is, then, founded upon love (Rennie).
1830—George Washington Custis’ play, Pocahontas, or the Settlers of Virginia has great success in American theaters. Written at the same time as the Indian Removal Policy of 1830 was being implemented, the play presents Pocahontas as “little more than a mouthpiece for colonial usurpation” and as a Native American who ultimately “rejects her own people in favor of the colonists” (Jaroff).
1861—John Easten Cooke, a fervent Southern secessionist and soldier in the Confederate Army, publishes his poem “Dream of the Cavaliers” in which he positions Pocahontas as “The founder of Virginia, / And the pride of the Southern land!” This is in vein with several other Southern writer so of the period, who used Pocahontas’ Virginian origins to establish their state’s legitimacy and cultural heritage outside of the Union (Rennie).
1995—Disney’s Pocahontas is released. The film consistently romanticizes Native Americans, as opposed to the mundane Europeans digging for gold, as having magical powers. Although the film presents a message of tolerance, scholars have noted that it occurs in a period when Disney was concerned with its own political incorrectness—it wanted to address “the rise in public criticism from various ethnic groups over racial stereotyping in their most recent productions” (Edgerton and Jackson).
Think about the different forms of the Pocahontas legend and the politics behind them. Can the Pocahontas story, of which so much is ambiguously historical, be adapted without stretching the truth? Have you noticed moments in other appearances of the story or other tales altogether in which such “inaccuracies” might seem especially malicious or self-serving? Do a work’s good intentions become nullified if they recast the Pocahontas story, especially if the ‘real’ Pocahontas might not be able to be reclaimed? How far is too far?
Edgerton, Gary, and Kathy Merlock Jackson. “Redesigning Pocahontas.” Journal Of Popular Film & Television 24.2 (1996): 90. International Bibliography of Theatre & Dance with Full Text. Web.
Jaroff, Rebecca. “Opposing forces: (re)playing Pocahontas and the politics of Indian removal on the antebellum stage.” Comparative Drama 40.4 (2006): 483+. Academic OneFile. Web.
Rennie, Neil. Pocahontas, Little Wanton: Myth, Life and Afterlife. London: Quaritch, 2007. Print.
Stymeist, David. “Strange Wives: Pocahontas in early modern colonial advertisement.” Mosaic 35.3 (2002): 109-125.Proquest. Web.