Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma

by Camilla Townsend

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Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma Themes

The main themes of Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma are the differing experiences of colonizers, the ingenuity of the Powhatan people, and the new characterization of Pocahontas. 


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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 594

The Different Experiences of the Colonizers

The English came across the ocean to North America in search of gold and other treasure. What they found instead, however, was a wealth of land. Because there wasn't obvious material wealth, those who came to the coast began to create settlements. By contrast, expeditions that left for South America met with a rather different result: when they arrived, they found treasure—in the form of gold and silver—and were willing to take it forcibly from the native populations.

If the same treasure had existed in North America, it's possible that the settlers would have behaved similarly. But since easy wealth remained elusive for English settlers, they were forced to hunker down and attempt to create a thriving society—one that would eventually come to prize self-sufficiency and individual freedom. However, that society was built on the land that the local native population needed and, as Townsend writes, couldn't live without. John Smith himself expressed regret that he and his men had come to a place with the "wrong Indians," believing the Spanish were fortunate to have invaded South America, where there was a wealth of gold and silver. The people who lived there weren't nomadic; they had villages, schools, and temples—a societal structure much more familiar to the European colonizers. The Powhatan, on the other hand, moved when necessary. As Townsend writes, there was a "vast difference between the Aztecs and Incas on the one side, and the North American Indians on the other."

The Sophistication and Ingenuity of the Powhatan People

Many histories of the Native American people in North America take the perspective that they were innocent victims of colonization; though this is accurate, it should not be taken to mean that Native American societies were unsophisticated. It's likely that Powhatan recognized that he and his warriors couldn't defeat the English in open combat once they understood what weapons the settlers had. Instead, the Powhatan used stealthier methods of engagement, like spying, to thwart the settlers. In discussions with the settlers, the Powhatan made clever and deliberate use of long pauses; these pauses appeared to be polite and considerate but actually allowed the Powhatan to advance their interests by making the other party uncomfortable. However, as Townsend writes, no matter what the Powhatan did or how hard they tried, they had little power to halt the flood of white settlers arriving in the New World as more and more people came looking to claim land.

A New Characterization of Pocahontas

The most prevalent theme in the book is the singular strength and ability of Pocahontas. Pocahontas was an intelligent young woman, and the author establishes that she was already envied for her abilities by both men and women when she was only a child. When she engaged with the English, she did so to help her people, working toward the specific goal of protecting them from the colonists. Her strength and ability to adapt allowed her to navigate and thrive in vastly different environments, including in her own society, the English settlements, and England as the wife of an Englishman. John Smith, who met her when she was a child, spoke of her as if she were older and a grown woman. Townsend uses source material to evaluate Pocahontas and illuminate the truth about the child Smith met and the woman who eventually traveled to England. Her marriage and travels were likely deliberately planned by the Powhatan people to create links between them and the English—made in the hope of avoiding war with one another.

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