Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma

by Camilla Townsend

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Summarize the book Pocahontas and The Powhatan Dilemma by Camilla Townsend.

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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.

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In the book Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma, Camilla Townsend rewrites the narrative of Pocahontas and the invasion of Europeans in the seventeenth century. Townsend challenges the myth of Pocahontas and her people—the colonial narrative, which paints the image of her as naive and innocent.
Townsend instead shows the ways she was a diplomat aware of her material disadvantages in the face of the colonizing English.

The book starts with Pocahontas as a young child in Chesapeake, when she encounters John Smith (despite his account that she was of marriageable age). Negotiations and strategies are developed between the Native Americans and colonizers, as an intermarriage was considered to be a way to prevent war in the long term. The love that had been fabricated by John Smith's account is diminished into a falsehood and is shown to be a long-term strategy of Pocahontas and her father. She molds herself into a noblewoman visiting Jamestown and becomes an English gentlewoman in London during her marriage to John Rolfe. Townsend's writing provides more insight into the relationship between the conqueror and conquered. It explores the complexities of white immigration, turning the tables on contemporary narratives. As Pocahontas passes away, her husband refuses to recognize their child and continues to call her by her childhood name. John Rolfe's failure to see her as fully human and John Smith's fictional tale of lust symbolizes the nature of current colonialist views on Native Americans as inferior people to whites.

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Set primarily in 17th century Virginia, this biographical history of the Native American princess Pocahontas (whose original name was Amonute) contextualizes her unique life within her family and community, while providing insights into their confrontation with the British colonists. Camilla Townsend emphasizes the social and political organization of the region, including the role of her father, King Powhatan, as it affected the British efforts to seize control. Locating the elite young woman’s role within the broader diplomatic efforts, Townsend reveals how the Algonquian Native peoples in the Chesapeake watershed area held off British incursions and, once they succumbed to military domination, negotiated for more favorable terms of co-existence. Re-evaluating the mythical scene of the girl’s rescue of John Smith, Townsend explains the diplomatic function of Algonquian efforts to symbolically incorporate the Europeans into their kinship system as a means of forging alliances.

Along with the historical situation, the author emphasizes the singularity of Pocahontas’s experience. Many Native Americans converted to Christianity and many elite Native women were married to, or became the mistresses of, white Europeans, and Pocahontas did both; relatively few relocated to Europe, however, while she moved with her husband, John Rolfe, to England, where she lived the rest of her life.

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In Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma, Camilla Townsend offers a new and refreshing biography of Pocahontas, a woman who has been depicted in a variety of genres and a variety of media, but often with little accuracy; Townsend seeks to rectify that. She tells the story of Pocahontas chronologically and also explores her profound influence. Townsend describes how the life of Pocahontas epitomizes the struggle of Algonquian-speaking people of the Chesapeake against dispossession from their lands. However, she also serves as a liminal figure between two civilizations. Powhatan men and women occupied complementary gender roles, with neither gender's tasks being valued more highly than the others. Pocahontas was a Powhatan women but she also became an Englishwoman and her attire and mannerisms involve elements of both cultures. Townsend retells the story of Pocahontas from her point of view and not, as usual, from the point of view of John Smith, the Englishman rescued by her and adopted by the Powhatan people. Townsend's Pocahontas escapes the stereotypical post-colonial rendering: she is more than a wise Indian who 'saves' her people by adopting the 'superior' ways of the white colonizers. Townsend shows how Pocahontas sought the good of her people above all and how she served as an important figure of mediation between the Powhatan and the English. She corrects, too, many of the misconceptions about the relationship between Pocahontas and John Smith.

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