Anniversary Reminds Powhatan Nation of Ongoing Struggle

13 May

Reuters has a story this morning about the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown settlement, and the implications of this for those who were displaced.

For most U.S. citizens the 400th anniversary of the first permanent English settlement in America is a time to celebrate pioneers who crossed the ocean in sailing ships and braved hardships to forge a nation.

But for American Indians whose ancestors lived in America when the English adventurers slogged ashore on Jamestown Peninsula in what is now Virginia, it is at once a reminder of their long struggle to overcome persecution and prejudice and a chance to reintroduce themselves to the world.

“We’re celebrating 400 years of survival in a fairly hostile environment,” said Anne Richardson, chief of the Rappahannock, one of several Powhatan tribes involved in the commemoration events this month that included a visit by the Queen.

I recently watched the movie Pocahontas for the first time, as part of an ongoing project to examine Disney heroines from a feminist perspective. It’s a cute movie, with an appealing and strong title character, and at first blush it seems to support the basic equality of all human beings. But some of its underlying assumptions gnawed at me, and felt patently at odds with what (admittedly little) I know about the history of indigenous people in this country and the arrival of the Europeans. So, I did a little reading online, and found a few interesting links.

Chief Roy Crazy Horse of the Powhantan Renape Nation explores The Pocohontas Myth, speaking not only of Disney’s rebuff to the Powhantans, but also to the truth as the Powhantans see it:

In 1995, Roy Disney decided to release an animated movie about a Powhatan woman known as “Pocahontas”. In answer to a complaint by the Powhatan Nation, he claims the film is “responsible, accurate, and respectful.”

We of the Powhatan Nation disagree. The film distorts history beyond recognition. Our offers to assist Disney with cultural and historical accuracy were rejected. Our efforts urging him to reconsider his misguided mission were spurred.

“Pocahontas” was a nickname, meaning “the naughty one” or “spoiled child”. Her real name was Matoaka. The legend is that she saved a heroic John Smith from being clubbed to death by her father in 1607 – she would have been about 10 or 11 at the time. The truth is that Smith’s fellow colonists described him as an abrasive, ambitious, self-promoting mercenary soldier.

Of all of Powhatan’s children, only “Pocahontas” is known, primarily because she became the hero of Euro-Americans as the “good Indian”, one who saved the life of a white man. Not only is the “good Indian/bad Indian theme” inevitably given new life by Disney, but the history, as recorded by the English themselves, is badly falsified in the name of “entertainment”.

Chief Roy Crazy Horse continues, contrasting the Disney movie to the story as the Powhatans know it. Other links I found, including a page at the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, suggest to me that there is continued disagreement on the true story of Matoaka. But there are some points on which the stories do converge, most important being that she was a child, and she was taken hostage by the European settlers.

I must echo the words of Chief Roy Crazy Horse:

It is unfortunate that this sad story,
which Euro-Americans should find embarrassing,
Disney makes “entertainment” and perpetuates a dishonest and self-serving myth
at the expense of the Powhatan Nation.

So, despite the obvious feminist appeal of the fictionalized Pocahontas, my heart won’t let me include her among my favorites, as her story is a cover for the struggles of a brave child named Matoaka, who endured a horrible kidnapping. Instead, I’ll honor Matoaka’s memory by meditating sadly on the embarrassing legacy left by my European ancestors, encouraging my readers to look deeper behind the story, and choosing to not watch that film again.

 

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