Historical accounts of Native American life in the seventeenth century were mostly recorded by white traders, missionaries, and soldiers. These scriveners knew very little about Native American culture and viewed tribal life from their European perspectives. As the focus of most writings of the era was on the male gender,...
Historical accounts of Native American life in the seventeenth century were mostly recorded by white traders, missionaries, and soldiers. These scriveners knew very little about Native American culture and viewed tribal life from their European perspectives. As the focus of most writings of the era was on the male gender, historical records also reveal little understanding of the role of Indian women in the social, economic, political, religious, and military facets of Native American culture.
In Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma, author Camilla Townsend presents a biography of Pocahontas that differs greatly from traditional versions. It explains the Indigenous perspective. The book relates a chronology of the life of Pocahontas in relation to the Algonquin tribes in their struggles against domination by the British.
The story begins as the heroine born Amonute is a child in the Chesapeake area of Virginia. Historically, she is the daughter of King Powhatan. The author suggests that possibly she is actually the child of a common member of Native American society. In any event, although women were actually given respect and equality not publicized in colonial recordings, Pocahontas begins her life with very little power or influence.
King Powhatan is the Algonquin ruler, and he is trying to hold off British control over the lands that he and his people use. Knowing the technological advantages the colonists have, he understands that a military solution to his dilemma would be devastating. Townsend argues,
A new nation was going to be built on their people’s destruction—a destruction that would be either partial or complete.
The author gives her readers an accurate comparison of the values and desires of the English colonists in Virginia and the indigenous peoples that occupy the land.
As Pocahontas grows, she undertakes a personal journey to secure Native American autonomy over their occupied land. She defies the British Empire intelligently, using espionage and deception as weapons. Townsend does not portray her as a naïve squaw throwing herself on the person of Captain John Smith in an attempt to save his life. In fact, there is no attempt by Powhatan to kill Smith at all. The author debunks this historical inaccuracy, explaining instead Pocahontas's role in negotiating a deal with Smith for the benefit of her people. However, the English did not honor the arrangement for weapons which they made with Powhatan. A military conflict ensues.
As Pocahontas rises in social significance as a diplomatic negotiator, she reaches a new stage in her life. She advances from the status of a young child to that of a noble "princess" sent by Powhatan to Jamestown. Her mission is to negotiate for the release of hostages and enforce compliance with the deal they agreed upon previously. The colonists said they would provide the Algonquins with weapons in exchange for food for the Jamestown colonists. It is there she meets John Rolfe.
Unlike the traditional inaccurate versions of the tale, Pocahontas does not fall in love with John Rolfe. Instead, she is forced into a marriage for diplomatic reasons and eventually enters yet another dimension of her life. She converts to Christianity and moves to Rolfe’s tobacco plantation, where she introduces new agricultural techniques. As a result, Pocahontas and her husband are invited to the court in London. While honored there she becomes ill and dies because she had never built up immunity to European diseases.
Upon his return to Virginia, Rolfe attempted to establish a school for Native American children. Upon his death, war broke out between the Indians and the colonists. Powhatan attacked Jamestown, killing a large portion of the population of settlers. Colonists retaliated by forcing the native tribes to relinquish control of their lands, essentially manufacturing an end to the war.
Townsend’s account of the life of Pocahontas is an attestation to the intelligence of the Native American people, the power of and respect for women in the Algonquin culture, and the rightful place of Pocahontas in the annals of American history.