Interpretive Strategies: Race, Sex, Other

The malleability of the Pocahontas myth has its limits, expansive as they are: Pocahontas is always a woman, usually an Indian. These two qualifications, slight (or imposing) as they seem already contradict the known facts, for Pocahontas always remained 'Indian', despite her conversion and marriage. However, as the range of portrait 'colors' at the top of the introductory page show, her race could mutate at the whim of her interpreters. This lack of specificity has allowed the figure of Pocahontas to play on various and contradictory 'chords' of American Memory, though as a young Indian woman she would seem in some ways prohibitively Other to represent a white male elite (for example). Yet in this aspect her 'otherness' admits intrusions. If, as Tzvetan Todorov has written "otherness is never radical," then cross-cultural communication and understanding become possible.

In one way the 'myth' of Pocahontas, especially her relationship with John Smith, affirms the inter-penetrability of otherness; it compels because of the protagonists' ease in traversing a "borderlands" territory fraught with non-understanding. Both Smith and Pocahontas seem more adept than their contemporaries in speaking each other's language and understanding each "Other's" culture And if we accept Gloria Anzaldúa's definition of borderlands as an "open wound" we can see how the Pocahontas myth both offers and necessitates multiple and continous readings; it is an area that will always be 'picked at', never allowed to 'scab-over' or to heal because its 'openness' accounts for much of its usefulness and power.

Its unsutured aspect also creates the possibility of a hegemonic appropriation of the story, one used to 'naturalize' power relations. In this way, Pocahontas' own acceptance of English culture and the tacit approval that this acceptance carried, has proven valuable to subsequent Euro- Americans intent on explaining the supremacy of their position. The Pocahontas myth usually denies any negative side of conquest, of the, in Myra Jehlen's words, "discovery of difference" between Europeans and 'Indians'. In an important way Pocahontas legitimates the difference between 'Us' and 'Them' as one of superiority (Europe) versus inferiority (Indians). However, and at the same instant, she also has been converted not only to Anglo-Christianity, but has been converted to the mother of the country (in concentric circles to Hers and Rolfe's 'real' descendants, the First Families of Virginia, the South, The Nation). This second 'conversion' in some ways elides the history of difference; a history made all the easier to forget by the complete destruction of her Indian family, her non- converted brethren.

Finally, remembering that Pocahontas has always been 'fully' sexed and gendered; we will realize that she has and must play other roles besides that of mother--chaste or wanton or jilted lover, innocent nymph, siren, whore, etc. We must also realize that if this protean figure can change her shade from red to white, she can go in the opposite direction as well. She can support multiple positions-- abolitionism, white sectarianism, empire-building and environmentalism-- often simultaneously. Thus the Pocahontas myth works and re-works several generic and genric modes: The Noble Savage, the Heathen 'saved' by Christianity, the Indian as Savior of white colonists (e.g. the Pilgrim Thanksgiving), and several versions of the captivity narrative. This project will briefly explore some of these concerns, realizing that many more lie unexamined. But as these pages are protean in nature, that too will change...

Home Forward Race Section Art Section