[Given my overall 2021 goal of better remembering all of American history, for this year’s post-Valentine’s non-favorites series I wanted to highlight some of the historical myths of which I’m decidedly not a fan. Share your own non-favorites, historical and every other type, for a crowd-sourced weekend airing of grievances that’s always one of my favorite posts of the year!]
On some of the truths behind one of our most mythologized figures.
If, as I’ve argued before in
this space, John Smith is relatively unknown in our communal
conversations, Pocahontas, daughter of the Virginia chief Powhatan and Smith's
continual partner in the historical narratives, suffers from the opposite
problem: she's perhaps the most broadly famous Native American figure in our history.
More exactly, compared even to other prominent Native Americans such as
Sacagawea, Geronimo, or Sitting Bull, the name Pocahontas immediately conjures
up (even for relatively non-historically minded Americans) a set of pretty
specific images: sacrificing herself to save Smith, developing a
pseudo-romantic relationship with him, eventually marrying another Englishman
(John Rolfe) and ending her life in England with him, and so on.
Many of those images of Pocahontas have been around since Smith's own narrative, so that in this case, the Disney version of history actually lines up quite closely with the most accepted national narratives (although I don't know that Pocahontas had as good a singing voice as Vanessa Williams in those earlier narratives). As best as scholars can tell from the scanty historical evidence (scanty other than, again, Smith's own somewhat unreliable account), the realities of Pocahontas' life and identity were significantly different, particularly in terms of her relationship with Smith: she was likely very young, something like 13 at the oldest, when they met; and so if she did save him and his fellow Englishmen from execution, it was likely for reasons other than those of romance in any explicit sense. Terrence Malick's film The New World (2005) seemingly attempts to represent those realities more accurately but achieves only mixed results, casting a very young Native American actress (Q'orianka Kilcher) as Pocahontas but still portraying her relationship with Colin Farrell's John Smith in explicitly romanticized ways.
But to my mind, the most interesting and meaningful American truths about Pocahontas don't depend on whether she was 12 or 20 when she met Smith, or whether they loved each other deeply or barely knew each other, or any variation on those questions. The most significant question to me is broader and more complicated still, and is the issue of whether her identity across the centuries of narratives is more stereotyped and limiting or more layered and humanizing, whether she's just an "other" falling for the superior white guy or is in fact an American who has a rich and full an identity as any European American figure. The answer, as with any of our most complicated questions, likely lies somewhere in the middle, and a great illustration of both sides is J.N. Barker's musical melodrama The Indian Princess (1809). Barker's Pocahontas is at once entirely a stereotype and yet a fleshed-out (and not in the Disney sense) heroine, just as his play's Englishmen run the gamut from stereotypical comic relief to complex (at least for an 1809 melodrama) heroes.
We're not likely to stop telling the story of Pocahontas, since it, like all of the most engaging American stories, connects to universal and powerful themes and narratives: love and sacrifice, loss and redemption, past and tradition vs. future and change. But it also, if more subtly, reveals much of what is both worst and best about our shared American identities, within and across ethnic and racial communities, and the more we can remember and retell those elements too, the more meaningful our stories of this Indian Princess will be. Next non-favorite tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Non-favorites (historical or otherwise) you’d share?