Monday, October 30, 2006

The Pocahontas Myth

Frederic W. Gleach, Ph.D. (Senior Lecturer and Curator, Anthropology Collections, Cornell University) wrote a fascinating feature in this month's issue of Natural History Magazine. His argument runs as follows:

The Powhatans (the American Indians encountered by the Jamestown colonists in 1607) adopted the English into their social and political world. While they could have easily exterminated the English in a sustained campaign, the Powhatans instead made the colonists part of the collectivity. The English could not understand this and viewed it as a sign of weakness. They continuously broke the compact they had forged with the Powhatans which provoked the occasional punishment from the Powhatans.

Captain John Smith was an integral part of the contract forged between the Powhatans and the English since the latter viewed him as the English "War Chief." This explains the change in relationships after he returned to England.

Pocahontas was acting in a traditional role as a cultural mediator in symbolically saving Smith's life so that he could be reborn into the Powhatan world. In other words the execution of Smith was staged as part of the ritual the Powhatans performed when welcoming outsiders into their social body and Pocahantas was just playing her role in the ritual as the chief's daughter.

In short -- the Pocahontas story is a myth to dress up the reality of theft and genocide in the pretty garb of an insipid love story that establishes the superiority of Anglo-American Masculinity. The only love in reality is that which the Powhatans showed the English when they greeted them at the Coast while they could have massacred them. Love the English viewed as weakness and reciprocated with continuous attempts to seize more land than they needed. And the only explanation for the English conquest is not their intellectual, military or moral superiority but their willingness to lie, murder and rob the very people who saved their miserable lives from starvation and death.

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