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Pocahontas Through the Ages
Robert Tilton's book, Pocahontas: The Evolution of a Narrative, is ultimately a story about a story. Tilton's study does not largely concern itself with the real life individual whom we have come to know as Pocahontas, nor the primary texts from the early seventeenth-century that documented the facts of her life as they originally occurred. In addition, Tilton does not engage in pointed discussion about the principle players involved in the famous rescue of John Smith, such as, the Powhatan people or key members of the Virginia plantation. He also side-steps the question of the historical authenticity of the rescue story -- a story that largely came into doubt amongst nineteenth-century critics and writers from the northern states who struggled to weaken the power of the mythic narrative being exploited by southerners, around the time of the Civil War. The story of Pocahontas, Tilton argues, has played itself out, again and again, in the pages of history and literature, in the visual arts, and in political tracts, since the time of Pocahontas herself. Tilton's work lays the emphasis squarely on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century re-interpretations and re-assessments of the early texts that document the life of the "Indian Princess" -- re-assessments that have contributed to an evolving and ever-expanding narrative of Pocahontas.
The central argument of Tilton's book is that the narrative tradition surrounding Pocahontas has been continually recast in different time periods. It has changed and evolved according to the needs of writers and artists who sought to re-tell the story according to the prevailing values of their time. Tilton writes, "[a] study of a tradition like that of Pocahontas reminds us that every new era interprets the cultural documents of the past in the service of prevailing agendas" (186). As a result, the authenticity or veracity of the entire Pocahontas narrative cannot be fully verified, especially given the fact that as Tilton remarks, "some aspects of the Pocahontas narrative have sources that date to the classical age" (6), to the stories of Jason, Medea, and Aeneas.
Tilton's book is therefore more than a story about a story; it is also an important comment on such larger matters as history, historical truth, and the reading and re-telling of history as well. Historians, artists, and political figures alike have all sought to re-tell the story of Pocahontas in order to affirm or validate their own perceptions, their own agendas -- political, literary, or otherwise -- in their own time. Tilton helps us understand that history and true-to-life historical events have not historically been read as isolated and remote facts, grounded in a specific time and place. History, we come to recognize, is not a static entity, rather it continues to be written and re-written; it continues to be debated and re-examined, long after its initial telling. Very often, history is uprooted from its time; it is severed from actual conditions or so-called historical truths in order to be used in the realms of fiction and myth, while becoming an important and symbolic tool for story-tellers, myth-makers, political figures, and moralists. History is therefore always open to interpretation and as such the perspective that certain individuals (or even whole cultures) have on historical events always changes, that is, the story's emphasis evolves over time, according to the particular needs of its interpreter. Historical interpreters of the Pocahontas story have continued to ask a myriad of questions: What is the real story here? What does this event represent? Who were the principle players? Is this a story of romance? Miscegenation? Was this a story of heroism or little more than a misinterpreted "Powhatan adoption ritual" (Tilton 5)? And what are the enduring values of this historical event? Read in a certain way, history lends itself to the advancement of moral lessons. History, Tilton shows us, can therefore be utilized as the raw materials for myth-making and nation building. The story of Pocahontas, like that of George Washington and the cherry tree, is no longer simply a piece of historical truth: it is a historical drama and a malleable narrative that has been told and retold throughout history to serve self-perceptions and shifting moral agendas, to serve a certain idea of America and a certain vision of Indian-American relations. Tilton adds that the real life story of Pocahontas has become "a flexible discourse...used to address a number of racial, political and gender-related issues" (1).
Tilton's study begins with the colonial or pre-Revolutionary engagement with Pocahontas and the work of various historians and authors who made use of this narrative. He writes, t]here had to be a United States of America before the ultimate implications of the Rescue [of John Smith] could be recognized and before [Pocahontas'] individual act of rebellion and sacrifice could be seen as a saving of, and even a precedent for, the citizens of the new nation (33).
In other terms, before Pocahontas could become a romantic, heroic, or even mythological figure -- that which she would become in the early nineteenth-century -- the need, by European settlers, to further colonize and populate the "New World" in the century leading up to the Revolutionary War in 1776 took precedence. The primary concerns for these early settlers through the early part of the eighteenth-century, included, amongst other things, the acquisition of land, the continued expansion of the population base, the need to 'civilize' the so-called 'savage' indigenous population by either removing them, converting them to Christianity, or killing them, and the need to minimize the threat of war over territorial land claims. Therefore, at that time, America needed a certain vision of Pocahontas to serve its cultural and political objectives. In time, as colonialism evolved into revolution and the United States of America was born, those objectives would change, and as we will see, so did the history of Pocahontas.
In the earliest reincarnation of the Indian Princess' story, the emphasis was placed on her marriage to John Rolfe in 1614. A prevailing question amongst pre-Revolutionary writers pertained to how colonial settlers would somehow resolve the "Indian question" (17)? The suggestion in a great deal of the literature was that colonial Europeans might have attempted to intermarry, in other words, to "cross-breed' with the native population. Tilton writes, "it was the rare historian who could resist the temptation provided by [the question of intermarriage in]... The Pocahontas narrative to editorialize on the missed opportunity for a general intermarriage modeled on the successful union of Pocahontas and Rolfe" (12). While most Anglo-Americans considered intermarriage to be unnatural, sinful, and morally wrong, not to mention illegal, several colonial writers pointed to the benefits of intermarrying the races and lamented the missed opportunity to assimilate the Indian population into the colonialist way of life. Writers like Robert Beverley saw the possibility of appropriating Indian lands.
Of course, the belief was that such a "mixed-breed" union would result in mostly white children; their children would be raised Christian, as would their children's children. Over several generations, native 'savagery' and ethnic identity would eventually be 'bred out' of the mixed marriage, because as Tilton writes, the belief was that "in those traditionally defined as 'half-breeds' a 'savage' was potentially lurking somewhere beneath the visible surface" (11), ready to rise up against Colonial settlers. So finally, through miscegenation and assimilation the native population would be largely pacified, and Europeans would be able assume what many believed to be their 'God-given' right to occupy the land, while future "Indians could simply be moved out into...vast open spaces, out of contact with the civilized world, and therefore away from any whites" (25). The story of Pocahontas was ultimately a useful tool for writers of this period who wanted to advance the value of mixed marriages largely because Pocahontas herself represented the pinnacle of elegance and grace: she was the Indian Princess who had gained acceptance by James I. At a time when colonialists sought ways to assimilate the native populations, and when laws and social edicts prohibited European whites from marrying or interbreeding with uncircumcised heathens, i.e., those who traditionally populated the "New World," the Pocahontas-Rolfe union was considered to be the exceptional and exemplary image of a successful union.
In this early incarnation of the Pocahontas narrative we see a clear example of how the narrative was used to justify certain social and economic goals. History, in this instance, becomes something less than concrete, less than final; rather, it becomes malleable in the hands of those who use it. History is not about relics; it is a living entity that can be used and manipulated by interested parties with an agenda to promote, and historians, for their part, need to ask themselves: who tells a given story and for what reason? This point is made all the more apparent in the years after the Revolution. Clearly, the times had changed and the primary need within the newly formed United States of America had shifted from the largely economic need to ensure a strong foothold on…[continue]
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