Friday, May 16, 2008


(Village of Jamestown, on the James River, Virginia, c. 1615)

"I have noticed that as soon as you have soldiers the story is called history. Before their arrival it is called myth, folktale, legend, fairy tale, oral poetry, ethnography. After the soldiers arrive, it is called history." -- Paula Gunn Allen, Ph.D.

Two days ago was the 401st anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, which led to, well, the United States. Jamestown looms large in my personal narrative and psyche because I'm a direct descendant of one of the second wave of settlers there, Captain James Davis -- who was one of the folks jumping at the chance to introduce African slavery to this continent. A legacy to contend with.

There's an excellent article (complete with excellent links) about Jamestown up at the wonderful blog The Edge of the American West. Excellent, that is, until the end when the author tries to introduce some whimsy by including a clip of Disney's Pocahontas. Despite his having earlier repudiated this myth, it's not enough to make up for that crap being referenced at all. Instead, I recommend you read Pocahontas: Medicine Woman, Spy, Entrepreneur, Diplomat by Paula Gunn Allen, Ph.D.. Allen is a Laguna poet, critic, essayist, novelist, short-story writer, educator, editor, lesbian-feminist, and one of the founders of Native American studies in this country. The review of the Pocahontas biography at Harper Collins states:

"In striking contrast to conventional accounts, Pocahontas is a bold and daring biography that attempts to tell the extraordinary story of the beloved Indian maiden from the Native American perspective. Drawing from sources often overlooked by Western historians, Dr. Paula Gunn Allen offers remarkable new insights into the adventurous life and sacred role of this foremost American heroine.

(Sedgeford portrait of Pocahontas and her son, Thomas Rolfe)

"We have all heard about the love-struck Pocahontas saving the dashing Captain John Smith from execution by the Chief of the Powhatans, but what if the whole event was a staged ritual of his death as a foreigner and his rebirth as an adopted member of the Powhatan Nation? Settlers at Jamestown report a young, cartwheeling Pocahontas frequently at their fort, but could the innocent-looking visitor actually have been a spy -- reporting back to her elders what she saw there? Was Pocahontas willingly kidnapped by the British settlers in exchange for corn and other ransom from her tribe, or was this a part of her more elaborate plan? We have been taught that this amazing woman was later baptized a Christian and married in the church at Jamestown, yet she helped her husband, John Rolfe, grow and export tobacco -- a powerful, indigenous herb to which the Native Americans attributed shamanic powers. Finally, the 'Indian Princess,' now known as Lady Rebecca Rolfe, traveled to England for an audience with King James I and Queen Anne. Was this a publicity stunt orchestrated by the English backers of the Virginia colony, or was Pocahontas fulfilling her role as a 'Beloved Woman,' an honor designated to a female of great spiritual power who was to be trained from birth in the diplomatic and political ways of her tribe?

"Pocahontas became an extraordinary ambassador, forming groundbreaking relations between the Indians, the American colonists, and the British. Dr. Gunn Allen convincingly argues that through all of this, Pocahontas fulfilled a crucial and essential role in the birth of a New World. This stunning portrait presents the fascinating, untold story of one of the most romantic and beloved figures in American history, and reveals why so many have revered Pocahontas as the female counterpart to George Washington, the true 'Mother of Our Nation.'"

I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Allen speak a few years ago, after this book came out. She was able to draw on the oral tradition and tribal memory of the people who are Pocahontas' descendants, which revealed that these people believed in 400 year cycles of development and change. They understood they were approaching the end of one era, and were about to see extreme transformation into another era. This is a large part of the reason why the first white settlers at Jamestown were not killed immediately: The native peoples waited to see if these newcomers were the bringers of change, in which case there was no point in trying to delay it. Their acceptance of and eventual assistance to such catharsis stands in contrast to our own cultural approach to unsolicited or unwelcome change.

However, Dr. Allen pointed out that day, we're entering the watershed between the past 400 years (set in motion at Jamestown) and what will come next: Something that may well mean our disappearance as a culture. Who among us will play Pocahontas' role of gracefully ushering in the new world?

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