July 22, 2015

Review of Allen's Pocahontas

Pocahontas: Medicine Woman, Spy, Entrepreneur, DiplomatIn striking counterpoint to the conventional account, Pocahontas is a bold biography that tells the extraordinary story of the beloved Indian maiden from a Native American perspective. Dr. Paula Gunn Allen, the acknowledged founder of Native American literary studies, draws on sources often overlooked by Western historians and offers remarkable new insights into the adventurous life and sacred role of this foremost American heroine. Gunn Allen reveals why so many have revered Pocahontas as the female counterpart to the father of our nation, George Washington.

From Publishers Weekly

In what is presented as the first study of its kind by an American Indian scholar, Allen (The Sacred Hoop) offers a corrective to the romantic story of Pocahontas told initially by Capt. John Smith of the Virginia Company and most recently by Disney Studios. Euro-American historical accounts of Pocahontas's brief life, asserts Allen, typically depict her as a lovelorn and tragic character (she died in 1617 in the aptly named river port of Gravesend, England, at the age of 20 or 21). Allen's Pocahontas, by contrast, is a real visionary, a prodigiously gifted young woman fervently devoted to the spiritual traditions of her people: a loose-knit group of Algonquin tribes known as the Powhatan Alliance, or Tsenacommacah. When the English colonists who began establishing Jamestown in 1607 invaded the Tsenacommacah, Pocahontas immediately identified it as the fulfillment of a prophecy that foretold the end of their world and the beginning of a new one, argues Allen. It was "world change time," she writes, and Pocahontas (also called Matoaka, Amonute and finally Lady Rebecca Rolfe) was nothing if not mutable--as implied by the book's subtitle. Still, notwithstanding Pocahontas's significant role in American history, Allen's claims that Pocahontas "set in motion a chain of events that would," among other things, "liberate the starving and miserable peoples of Europe and beyond" can seem overstated. More persuasive are Allen's comments about the cultural similarities between the English and Algonquin and the idea that each group changed the other. When casting Pocahontas as "the embodiment of this dual cultural transformation," her role, and the book, are at their clearest, and are made manifest by Allen's often lyrical and powerful writing.
Allen's take on Pocahontas

Some statements from Paula Gunn Allen's "Sendings" from Pocahontas: Engaging with an Unusual Reality show how Allen reinterpreted Pocahontas's life:Before Pocahontas is born, the elders receive a vision from the Manito. The Manito reveal that an influential child "possessed of a high-order of spiritual identity" will be born into the Powhatan peoples (235). That child is Pocahontas.

Pocahontas is an "adept"—one who is highly educated in Dream-Vision disciplines (21). She was granted this skill before birth by the Manito, so she could communicate more proficiently with supernaturals throughout her life.

Because of Pocahontas's Dream Vision, wherein she saw Smith's fa├žade float to shore, Smith will be initiated into the Powhatan Alliance to be an ambassador between the English and the Powhatans; to maintain a peace; and aid the Powhatan peoples in the time of transformation.

Allen declares that Pocahontas boarded ship with Argall because "it was the occasion she was waiting for," it was "a continuance of her duties as spy and perhaps as emissary ... and the council needed eyes and ears within the [English] enclave" (131).

Pocahontas married John Rolfe, not because of "romantic impulses" (90), but because marrying him would insure the "spirit of tobacco would find a home in the new world" (235).

Pocahontas's intentions in going to England were quite different from Rolfe's. Her Manito-directed mission was to exchange "arcane knowledge" with the English occult and to deliver this knowledge back to the Native Elders (284).

Pocahontas ... successfully built a bridge between "Manito and Faerie," she introduced the shamanistic herb tobacco to the world, and "she was the mother of a new race"—there are three million mixed-blood descendants of English and Powhatan stock (305).
More reviews

Some reviews from Goodreads:Meg rated it 3 of 5 stars

This book was intriguing at times, maddening at other times. I really liked the way the author just laid it out there at the beginning that she was going to mix up traditional Western linear biography narrative with a cyclical-time-based spiritual understanding of history. Her opening chapter describing this is really brilliant. While reading the rest of the book, I felt that (on the one hand) she had some super insightful ways of envisioning Pocahontas' history. It never would have occurred to me that Pocahontas was a spy but it makes total sense when put in this perspective. On the other hand, I wanted to be more clear about when she was giving known historical (Western linear etc etc) fact, when she was looking from a more cyclical-time lens, and when she was speculating. And sometimes she got really too into the whole trip of Native Americans having a unitary philosophy/way of seeing things. As a side note, I loved how she made parallels between Native American spiritual worlds and the pagan English alternative spiritual world (alchemy, ceremonial magic, fairies, etc). That was fun and unusual.

Emily rated it 3 of 5 stars

Although this book is supposed to be a biography of Pocahontas, it is unlike any biography I have read before. Rather than recount what few facts we know about her life, (and, as Allen points out, most of those facts are filtered--several times--through a foreign lens), Allen seeks to provide a context for Pocahontas, to flesh out the world she came from, so that we can reinterpret who she was and what her life meant. And as far as that goes, I though Allen did a fantastic job. In fact, the context of Pocahontas' world turned out to be far more interesting to me than the woman herself, at least as described by Allen. Sometimes the book becomes quite repetitive (Allen says she does it on purpose, as repetition in the oral tradition is meant to emphasize important points), and sometimes she makes what seem to me to be long leaps of logic (though she says she is writing from a perspective outside of the world of rationality). Nonetheless, this book is well worth the read if you're interested in learning more about what a Native American worldview might have been like during a time when tribal cultures were still strong and intact throughout the continent
Comment:  These postings give you an idea of what the book is like, but it's hard to pin down.

I'd say Allen's claims are provocative and compel you to see Pocahontas in a new light. But they're speculative more than persuasive. You may end up thinking none of them are true.

Allen's Pocahontas may be a must-read for Pocahontas aficionados. But I'm not sure anyone else will enjoy it. Especially if they're not interested in Native subjects in general. Rob's rating: 7.0 of 10.

For more on Pocahontas, see Fever Sexualizes Pocahontas and "In Defense of Pocahontas."

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