February 10, 2007

Pornographic Pocahontas

Jamestown's 400th stirs a new view of the Pocahontas legacy

The myth:The traditional view of Pocahontas is on display at the Virginia Historical Society. The exhibit, which opens this weekend, comes amid an 18-month state commemoration of the four centuries since Jamestown's settlement in 1607.

In paintings, prints, sculpture and gaudy popular representations, the short life of Pocahontas is presented in an almost biblical tableau: Pocahontas rescuing Capt. John Smith in 1607 from an execution ordered by her father, Powhatan; Pocahontas warning Smith that her father was planning again to kill him; her kidnapping by settlers; Pocahontas converting to Christianity and marrying Englishman John Rolfe; and Pocahontas dying in England in 1617.

Pocahontas is shown in various forms of nudity, which was the custom for young Indian girls until puberty. But instead of deerskin aprons, also the fashion for older girls and women, she is depicted in flowing, often diaphanous covers. Her appearance ranges from teenage sprite to the European ideal of feminine beauty.

"This is what we know, and this is all we know," William M.S. Rasmussen, a curator of the exhibit, said in an interview. "And it's all the English perspective, all by men."
The reality:Camilla Townsend, author of "Pocahontas and Powhatan Dilemma," used a variety of sources and arrived at a sharply different view of Pocahontas and the men whose portrayal has been sustained through the centuries.

"Indeed, the whole narrative that is so cherished in America is pornographic--in that the girl in the story has no needs, ambitions, rages or opinions of her own," Townsend wrote in an e-mail response to a series of questions. "She exists merely to adore John Smith, white men, English culture."

Townsend raises many of the questions cited by other historians and Indian critics of the Pocahontas story.

Smith, the settlement's raconteur, wrote in 1624 of his dramatic rescue--after the deaths of Pocahontas and many of the principals who could have corroborated his story. At best, critics argue, Smith's capture could have been a misinterpreted Indian ritual, such as an adoption ceremony.
Comment:  The artwork is by Rachel Dennis (Mohawk).

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