Posted At: March 10, 2013 9:00 P.M.
by Martina Kaiwi
Social stereotypes of Native American women displayed in the media are controversial to say the least. Many are depicted as half-dressed natives that make Halloween costumes or outfits for Victoria Secret models.
Another inaccurate portrayal of Native American women is illustrated in Disney’s animated movie “Pocahontas.” Its story focuses on the unity of race, class and gender. Disney’s narrative is a story of multiculturalism that illustrates America’s melting pot as a symbol of assimilation, rather than Pocahontas’ role as a cultural mediator to colonial relations.
This article will provide a better understanding of the history of Pocahontas and her impact as one of the first cultural communicators of America.
Matoaka, more commonly know by her nickname Pocahontas (meaning playful spirit), was one of the first woman mediators in America. She is responsible for the negotiations between the people of Jamestown, the first permanent English colony, and the Powhatan tribe. Pocahontas’ dedication as a cultural mediator is evident by her transformation from wild native to cultured Lady Rebecca Rolfe.
Not only did she communicate on behalf of her tribe, but she also represented a culture of women who greatly differed from the Anglo-European culture — a culture of women who could own property, partake in polygamous relationships and could divorce their husbands. In Native American tribes, gender did not dictate personal, professional or monetary worth.
In his accounts of the Powhatan tribe titled “Generall Historie of Virginia, and Summer Isles of 1624,” John Smith wrote, “The men bestowe their times in fishing, hunting, wars and such manlike exercises . . . The women and children do the rest of the worke. They make mats, baskets, pots, morters, pound their corne, make their bread, prepare their victuals, plant their corn, gather their corn, beare al kind of burdens and such like.”
Before European contact, it was normal that men and women worked gender-specific jobs to help better identify the strengths of their sex. It is important to note that one gender did not dominate the other; both were viewed as equals, which helped to create balance within their culture.
Life as a Cultural Mediator
Smith’s historical account shows us that Pocahontas began her cultural meditations in 1607, when her Powhatan tribe captured him.
“Two great stones were brought before Powhatan: then as many as could laid hands on him, dragged him to them, and thereon laid his head, and being ready with their clubs, to beate out his braines, Pocahontas the King’s dearest daughter, when no intreaty could prevaile, got his head in her armes, and laid her owne upon his to save him from death,” Smith said.
After her rescue of Smith, Pocahontas’ father performed an adoption ceremony that forever bonded Smith, Pocahontas and her tribe.
Smith would later return to England to tell the story of the brave native girl who saved his life. Eventually, England would use her story as propaganda to illustrate the potential of peace between the two cultures and to persuade more to colonize in America.
The relationship between the Powhatan tribe and the English weakened when Jamestown began to expand its colony. With the influx of colonials, tensions increased to the point of war. Both cultures began to attack one another by setting fire to crops and homes.
In April of 1613, Pocahontas, the favorite daughter to Algonquin chief Powhatan, was captured and held hostage for a year. Her captor John Rolfe, wealthy tobacco farmer of Jamestown, taught Pocahontas English and converted her to Christianity. Later they would marry and have a son.
Their marriage was a symbol of peace between the English and the natives, ensuring harmony for six years. Pocahontas, now known as Lady Rebecca Rolfe, agreed to serve as a representative to England.
In England she and her son, Thomas, became symbols of unity and missionary success. Lady Rebecca Rolfe soon became the first Native American to be presented in court, communicating with some of the most influential men of the time.
After her successes in England, she and her family boarded the ship home to Virginia. Very soon after, Lady Rebecca Rolfe fell ill to disease and died.
Upon her death in 1617, the peace between the two cultures, for which she worked so hard, ended.
Lady Rebecca Rolfe represented two different worlds. By giving birth to her son, she encouraged the cohesion of these native and civilized cultures. The children resulting from these new relationships were not viewed as lesser beings. Rather, they were new channels to help facilitate agreements between Europeans and Native American tribes that would ultimately benefit economy, safety, and property rights. In reality, this symbol of evolution would eventually lead to a break in culture, traditions and practices.
Pocahontas will forever be immortalized as a woman who danced with the colors of the wind, but she also changed history with her sacrifice to become a cultural communicator.
Dr. Kopelson, University of Alabama professor of gender and Native American/ European contact, believes Pocahontas is famous not because of her success as a communicator, but because she never chose one culture over the other.
“She believed it was her duty as a woman to better herself and her tribe. An important theme to my class is how the history of American Indians has often been ignored, changed, appropriated, distorted, as well as reclaimed and re-evaluated overtime,” Dr. Kopelson said.
As PR practitioners we must remember Pocahontas for her courage to communicate even during times of war and suffering.