Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Princess of the Powhatan

This particular Mythbelief is probably one that’s pretty much exclusive to USians, and possibly Canadians. Until the Disney movie came out, that is, then Pocahontas got a little more worldwide recognition.

 The story it pretty basic, and most people know a couple things about her:

1) She was an Indian Princess.
2) She saved her friend/lover John Smith’s life.
3) She brought the White People and the Indians together.

That can’t be too off base, right? 

1) She was an Indian Princess.

I’m gonna let you in on a little secret. Outside the sub-continent of India, there is no such thing as an Indian Princess. Not even Cherokee ones (sorry, Johnny Depp).

The term “Princess” was introduced by Europeans, and picked up by a lot of English speaking Cherokee men to refer to their wives fondly as “their princess.” [*It was a term of endearment. That’s it. There is no such thing as Native American nobility other than if someone of Native decent married into some other place’s royal family. Pocahontas was called an “Indian Princess” in England… like one time. Most likely so the nobility of the court of James I treat her with respect. [**

2) She saved her friend/lover John Smith’s life.

When Pocahontas met John Smith, she was 10 years old.

She’s 10. He’s 28. Yep, he’s old enough to be her father.

The whole saving John Smith’s life thing may or may not have actually happened. The basis for the idea was from a letter Smith wrote 8 years after the event (it doesn’t show up at all in his published stories about living in Virginia). In the letter he claimed that Pocahontas argued with her Father, wanting Smith to be allowed to live so he could make bells and beads for her. [***] Not that I could blame her. Bells and beads are pretty fantastic.

Incidentally, when John Smith and Pocahontas met up again in England, she wasn’t happy to see him at all. She left the room to compose herself when he was announced, and before he left she made it very clear that she was upset with him at how he had treated her father before returning to England.

3) She brought the White People and the Indians together.

This one is a little more complicated. Given the history that happened after her life, one can’t really say that the white people and the indigenous people were ever “brought together.”

Pocahontas was married to a man named Kocoum.

The name may seem familiar.

Her marriage to Kocoum ended when Pocahontas was kidnapped and held hostage by the English. It’s unknown what happened to Kocoum after Pocahontas’s capture. A year after she was taken, she agreed to marry John Rolfe as a condition to end the First Anglo-Powhatan War in 1614 (you’ll notice it ended the first war; the second one started in the spring of 1622). She also converted to Christianity and took the new name Rebecca.

 This is the only image we have of her that was made during her lifetime.

For the record, her name wasn’t even Pocahontas. Her given name was Matoaka, but later she was also known as Amonute. Poacahontas was a nickname, and is claimed to have meant “little wanton.”

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