pocahontas may be a household name, but the true story of her short but powerful life has been buried in myths that have persisted since the 17th century.
for starters, pocahontas wasn’t even his real name. born around 1596, she was actually called amonute, and she also had the more private name matoaka. Pocahontas was her nickname, which depending on who you ask means “playful” or “rude girl”.
Pocahontas was the favored daughter of Powhatan, the formidable ruler of more than 30 Algonquian-speaking tribes in and around the area that early English settlers would claim as Jamestown, Virginia. Years later, after no one could dispute the facts, John Smith wrote of how she, the beautiful daughter of a powerful native leader, rescued an English adventurer from being executed by her father.
This narrative of Pocahontas turning his back on his own people and siding with the English, thus finding common ground between the two cultures, has endured for centuries. But in reality, the life of Pocahontas was very different from how the Smith account or the dominant culture. It’s even disputed whether the 11- or 12-year-old Pocahontas even rescued the merchant soldier and scout, as Smith may have misinterpreted what was actually a ritual ceremony or simply pulled the story from a popular Scottish ballad.
Now, 400 years after her death, the story of the real Pocahontas is finally accurately explored. In the new Smithsonian Channel documentary Pocahontas: Beyond Myth, premiering March 27, authors, historians, curators, and representatives of Virginia’s Pamunkey tribe, the descendants of Pocahontas, offer expert testimony to paint a picture of a brave and overwhelming pocahontas who grew up to be an intelligent and courageous young woman, serving as a translator, ambassador and leader in her own right against the European power.
Camilla Townsend, author of the authoritative Pocahontas and Powhatan’s Dilemma and professor of history at Rutgers University, featured in Beyond the Myth, talks to the Smithsonian about why the story of Pocahontas has been so distorted for so long time and why his true legacy is vital to understand today.
how did you become a scholar of pocahontas?
I was a Native American history teacher for many years. he was working on a project comparing early relations between colonists and indians in spanish america and british america when they arrived. i thought i would be able to draw on other people’s work on pocahontas and john smith and john rolfe. there are actually hundreds of books over the many years that have been written about it. but when i tried to research it i found that most of them were full of nonsense. many of them had been written by people who were not historians. others were historians, [but] they were people who specialized in other subjects and took it for granted that if something had been repeated several times in other people’s works, it must be true. when I went back and looked at the actual surviving documents from that period, I learned that much of what had been repeated about her was not true at all.
As you point out in the documentary, it’s not just Disney that gets their story wrong. This goes back to John Smith, who marketed their relationship as a love story. What class and cultural factors have allowed that myth to persist?
That story that Pocahontas was madly in love with John Smith has endured for many generations. he himself mentioned it in colonial times, as you say. he later died, but he was reborn after the revolution at the beginning of the 19th century, when we were really looking for nationalist stories. since then he has lived on in one form or another, up until the disney movie and even today.
I think the reason it’s been so popular, not with Native Americans, but with people from the mainstream culture, is that it’s so flattering to us. the idea is that this is a “good Indian.” she admires the white man, she admires Christianity, she admires the culture, she wants to have peace with these people, she is willing to live with these people instead of her own people, marry him instead of one of his own . That whole idea makes people in white American culture feel good about our story: that we weren’t doing anything wrong to the Indians, we were actually helping them, and the “good guys” appreciated it.
In real life, Pocahontas was a member of the Pamunkey tribe in Virginia. How do the Pamunkey and other indigenous people tell their story today?
It’s interesting. In general, until recently, Pocahontas has not been a popular figure among Native Americans. when i was working on the book and i called the virginia council on indians, for example, i got reactions of groans because they were so tired. native americans for so many years have been so tired of white enthusiasts who love pocahontas and pat themselves on the back because they love pocahontas, when in reality what they really loved was the story of an indian who practically adored the culture white. they were tired of it, and they didn’t believe it. seemed unrealistic to them.
I would say there has been a change recently. in part i think the disney movie helped ironically. Although it conveyed more myths, the Native American character is the star: she’s the main character, and she’s interesting and strong and beautiful, so young Native Americans love to watch that movie. it’s a real game changer for them.
The other thing that’s different is that the scholarship is much better now. we know a lot more about her real life now that Native Americans are also realizing that we need to talk about her, learn more about her, and read more about her, because, in fact, she was not selling her soul and it did not. I don’t love white culture more than the culture of her own people. she was a brave girl who did everything she could to help her people. once they start to realize that, it’s understandable that they’ll become much more interested in her story.
So, the lesson passed down by the mainstream culture is that by leaving her people and embracing Christianity, Pocahontas became a model of bridging cultures. What do you think are the real lessons that can be learned from the real life of Pocahontas?
To a large extent, the lesson is extraordinarily powerful, even against very daunting odds. The people of Pocahontas could not possibly have defeated or even held at bay the power of Renaissance Europe, which is what John Smith and the colonizers who came after stood for. they had stronger technology, more powerful technology in terms of not only weapons, but also transportation and book printing and compass making. all the things that made it possible for europe to come to the new world and conquer it, and the lack of which made it impossible for native americans to move into the old world and conquer it. so the Indians faced extraordinarily daunting circumstances. Yet in the face of that, Pocahontas and so many others we read and study about now displayed extreme courage and intelligence, sometimes even brilliance in the strategy they used. so I think the most important lesson will be that she was braver, stronger and more interesting than the fictional pocahontas.
during your extensive research, what were some details that helped you get to know pocahontas better?
the documents that really stood out to me were the surviving notes of john smith. he was kidnapped by Native Americans a few months after arriving here. finally, after questioning him, they released him. But while he was imprisoned among the Native Americans, we know that he spent time with Powhatan’s daughter, Pocahontas, and that they were teaching each other some of the basics of his language. and we know this because in his surviving notes there are written phrases like “tell pocahontas to bring me three baskets ” or “pocahontas has many white beads “. then all of a sudden i could see this man and this girl trying to teach each other. in one case English, in another case an Algonquian language. literally, in the fall of 1607, sitting along some river somewhere, they said these royal prayers. she repeated them in Algonquin, and he wrote them down. that detail brought them both to life for me.
Four hundred years after his death, his story is told more accurately. what has changed?
studies on television and other pop culture show that that decade between the early 1980s and early 1990s is when the real sea change happened in terms of American expectations that we should really see things from the point of view from other persons. , not just from the dominant culture. so that had to happen first. so let’s say in the mid to late 90’s that had happened. then more years had to pass. my pocahontas book, for example, came out in 2004. another historian wrote a serious segment about her that said the same thing i did, only with less detail, in 2001. so the ideas of multiculturalism had gained dominance in our world in the mid 90’s, but it took another five to ten years before people digested this and published it in newspapers, articles and books.
given that the shift in conventional scholarship is so recent, do you think there is more to learn from its history in the future?
I think there is more to learn about it in the sense that it would help modern politics if more people understood what the native peoples really went through both at the time of the conquest and in the years after. there is such a strong feeling in our country, at least in some places among some people, that somehow native americans and other disempowered people had a good time, they are the lucky ones with special scholarships and special status. that is very, very far from being a reflection of his actual historical experience. once you know the actual history these tribes have been through, it’s sobering, and one has to consider the pain and loss that some people have experienced much more than others over the last five generations or so. I think it would help everyone, both native and dominant culture, if more people understood what the native experience was really like both at the time of the conquest and since then.