Term Paper: Pocahontas Through the Ages Robert

Pages: 10 (3298 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 1  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Native Americans  ·  Buy This Paper


[. . .] The goal now would be to invent a heroic past, to establish a place in history, to sustain and support the young nation as it begins to take shape, and to ensure a great future. Tilton writes,

It was a rare occurrence during the first two decades of the nineteenth-century when a reference to the colonial past was not made to fit into the tapestry of the national prehistory, especially when an event could easily be read as in some way preparatory to the founding of a nation. (48)

An earlier willingness to tolerate Indian-American marriages for the sake of land acquisition would no longer be useful in the newly formed United States, and the Pocahontas-Rolfe story-line almost immediately began to crumble. In fact, Rolfe, who had been a central figure in the early versions of the Pocahontas narrative, would from the Revolution on become more and more a peripheral figure, as his presence only appeared to further the common distaste for the immoral and sinful mixing of breeds, that which so many found abhorrent. The emphasis would at first shift to both Pocahontas herself and her relationship with John Smith.

In post-Revolutionary versions of the story, "it is [Pocahontas'] natural 'humanity,' or feelings of benevolence toward all human beings...that emerges and causes her to protect the helpless prisoner" (Tilton 35). Pocahontas, as a literary figure, begins to take on a certain nobility and strength, which her status as a high-ranking Indian Princess had initially helped to cultivate. She becomes a heroic figure of the past, a heroine with a deep feeling for humanity -- this, of course, would be a useful image for a young, forward-looking nation, searching for a common identity, driven by dreams of unlimited expansion, "Manifest Destiny," while hoping for an unlimited future, filled with promise and glory. Both writers and the Founding Fathers alike hoped to provoke emotion or feeling in the people about their country, their history, their future, and their place in the world. Pocahontas' past actions, i.e., protecting the young John Smith from the heartless "savage" about to take his life, became an important symbol of American destiny and American promise. Smith, like all of America, had been saved, protected, and nurtured in the face of the Godless hoards. America would also survive, with God's grace. Therefore, in the post-Revolutionary period, the fact that Smith had survived at all proved that somehow destiny had had a hand in the eventual creation of America, and America would now survive and prosper. The Pocahontas narrative helped to stir the revolutionary spirit all the more; it served the people as a common link to a mythic past -- a past that helped unite Americans at a crucial stage of their development: the search for identity. Once again, the needs of the time dictated the tone and tenor of the Pocahontas narrative, and that early history was literally re-invented for the newly created United States.

In addition to her symbolic status as a protector of the young nation, her story, perhaps in an effort to further distance the Indian Princess from her American husband, began to take on a more romantic aspect as well, making it more palatable, "more attractive to a wider, particularly female audience" (Tilton 36). Tilton describes the image of a young woman who projected innocence and purity of heart, who felt only love and affection for the man who she helped to save from certain death. The romantic angle would be further developed through the first part of the eighteenth-century with the growing perception that Pocahontas' "romantic feelings [for John Smith] were at the root of her heroism" (58). Pocahontas was the heroine, John Smith the hero. While American values and laws dictated that Indians not marry Americans, perhaps the story of Pocahontas' ill-advised sexual attraction or romantic love for John Smith may have better served the American desire to purify its stock and rid itself of "half-breeds" than a story of miscegenation, family, and children would have. Perhaps Pocahontas was simply deluded about John Smith. This conclusion might certainly be plausible in this period given that in the minds of most Americans, Pocahontas emerged from an inferior race. Nonetheless, alongside the common desire to destroy the native population, "[t]he reawakening of this fear of miscegenation was an important reason for the growing dominance of the Pocahontas-Smith elements of the narrative. Their relationship, though perhaps sexually charged, did not have to end in cohabitation" (62). The goal of Indian assimilation had long been abandoned by the 1820s, and Indians had lost or were rapidly losing all their ancestral lands, so America needed to re-think the Pocahontas narrative.

Pocahontas' life had made its way directly into the realm of sentimental fiction and drama, and she was the central inspiration for the conventional figure of the "noble" (Tilton 59) or "gentle" (75) savage. Her story was both romantic and epic, and it would be a story that the state of Virginia would ultimately use to elevate its own stature within the newly formed union. Pocahontas had become a monumental figure, a deity, a romantic heroine, full of humanity and bravery. In short, she had achieved what most all native Americans would never achieve; she had become the "good Indian" (48) who was somehow acceptable to Americans, where most other Native Americans would simply be considered a threat to the American way of life. In fact, Pocahontas may have seemed slightly more acceptable to the American audience over time because of her elevated status. Descended from native Royalty, Pocahontas came from the Native American equivalent of a higher class. She would therefore have been considered more noble in general, more acceptable, than would have the vast majority of native Americans. Where she failed at the level of race, she redeemed herself in the eyes of Americans for her position as the archetypal "Indian Princess" of the Powhatan people. In any case, Pocahontas continually emerges as the exemplary Indian, and the prevailing belief was that "certain Indians, like certain blacks...apparently had the potential for civilized behavior" (56).

Still, the concern amongst many Americans through the early stages of the nineteenth-century was that there remained something entirely indecent and problematic about the idea of a native heroine, about the relationship between Rolfe and Pocahontas (i.e., the idea of miscegenation), and about Indians generally. As the "era of the romantic Indian" began to fade from dramatic literature and the stage, Pocahontas' story began to shift to "the drama of a rescue scene without the problematic romantic material that should necessarily have followed" (Tilton 76). Once again, Pocahontas would need to be 'Americanized,' and, in this case, 'Christianized.' I would argue that despite several problematic revisions of the Pocahontas narrative up to that point in history, the narrative turns even more insidious for several reasons. For example, once again the original story was re-emphasized; in this instance, art work laid the primary emphasis, not on Pocahontas' noble deeds, not on her strength or heroism, but on her baptism into Christianity. Tilton writes,

Chapman, the young Virginia artist who was awarded one of the commissions [to paint Pocahontas' image], chose instead to portray the baptism of Pocahontas, the moment when the princess became Rebecca, and symbolically abandoned her native culture in favor of that offered by the English. (96)

Pocahontas' husband, John Rolfe, is initially removed from the narrative to ease public concerns with the idea of miscegenation, but even more problematically Pocahontas is robbed of her name, her native identity, her Indian beliefs, her heroism, her strength of character, and she is altogether de-sexualized in order to lessen the prevailing disdain for, and fear of, Indians amongst writers, artists, and the general population.

In art from the period, Pocahontas becomes an angelic and submissive figure, portrayed as light skinned, and therefore less clearly an individual of native descent. She is dressed in flowing "European dress" (Tilton 112), certainly acceptable attire for women of this time. In short, "[t]he whiteness of her costume emphasizes her innocence." On occasion, she is pictured in profile, with face obscured, or she is kneeling at the feet of Colonial Europeans. She is submissive, deprived of her humanity and her heroic deed, and as Tilton mentions, she is valued on the basis of what the English gave to her, that is, baptism, rather than what she gave to the English. Tilton writes that Chapman's picture of Pocahontas suggests "that a blanching of any distinctively Indian racial features has occurred through this Christianization process" (113), suggesting also that her "neutral status" resulted in her being "no longer an Indian." Finally, Tilton adds that in some poses, she "actually most resembles...the kneeling Virgin Mary of Nativity scenes, with her hands clasped in prayer and her eyes lowered as if she were looking down into the manger" (114). The suggestion is that Pocahontas has turned her back on her own people and culture. Her deed became… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Pocahontas Through the Ages Robert.  (2002, June 27).  Retrieved July 18, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/pocahontas-ages-robert/8650022

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"Pocahontas Through the Ages Robert."  Essaytown.com.  June 27, 2002.  Accessed July 18, 2019.