Pocahontas: Icon at the Crossroads of Race and Gender in America

"THE DISCOVERY OF AMERICA, PAINTED IN 1575 BY JAN van der STRAET, DEPICTING A NAKED INDIAN PRINCESS WELCOMING CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS AS SHE RECLINES ON A HAMMOCK (!)

Even before the first Englishman set foot on Virginia soil, America was represented in the iconography of 16th century European art as an Indian woman. She was depicted as variously savage and seductive. Speculation as to the pre-civilized culture of the virgin continent fuelled the fascination with this Indian Princess, as the icon was called. When reports of Pocahontas' valiant intervention on behalf of John Smith reached European ears, there must have been a slight shock of recognition. The legend of the savage, yet noble, Indian Princess already existed in an embryonic form before anyone had ever heard of Pocahontas. She essentially stepped into a ready-made iconic role.

IMAGE: THE DIPLOMATIC MEDAL

The Indian Princess was later used by the early republic to represent itself. President Washington , in 1790, ordered one of four early congressional medals to bear the image of the Indian woman.Thomas Jefferson was instrumental in bringing this work, now known as "The Diplomatic Medal", to fruition. He saw to it that a French engraver of some renown execute the medal, which bears the inscription "To peace and Commerce," and depicts the United States as an Indian Princess holding a cornucopia filled with fruit. She is welcoming Mercury, symbolizing commerce, to her shores and seems to be calling his attention to bundles of merchandise ready for export displayed at her feet.

Pocahontas then becomes inextricably linked to powerful image of the Indian Princess and its identification with the very essence of our nation. The 19th century, especially, saw a tremendous concern with Pocahontas as the United States sought to fashion a history for itself appropriate to its emerging identity.