It was hard to decide just when to visit Pocahontas. Should it be in 1607, when she was a young adolescent witnessing the arrival of colonists from England, among them the swash-buckling Captain John Smith, hero of the Disney movie? Or maybe in 1608, when she betrays her father and her people, the Powhatans, by telling John Smith, now a good friend, about the chief's plan to kill him? Maybe 1613 would be a good time, the year in which Captain Samuel Argall, one of the leaders of the colony, kidnaps her and holds her for a ransom of fourteen English prisoners, a bunch of corn, guns and the secret location to all the gold the Indians were supposed to have. As an experiment to see if they could make a Christian out of this savage, the colonists teach Pocahontas the Lord's Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the Apostles' Creed. Talk about a captive audience. She is described as being "a willing and apt pupil". She also learns how to cover up her nakedness and begins to dress like the women of the colony (all two of them). She is baptized, given the name Rebecca, and marries one of her Bible teachers, John Rolfe (who also happens to be the inventor of the modern tobacco plant, and the modern tobacco plantation). They have a son, named Thomas.

But as fascinating as 1613 is, I finally decide instead on the year 1615, the year that Pocahontas goes to England. The colony, run by the British Virginia Company, was having trouble attracting colonists. Not surprising, since four out of five colonists died of either starvation, sickness, or angry Indians. Pocahontas, the graceful Indian princess who had accepted Jesus as her saviour, was the perfect spokesmodel. So a ship and crew were readied, and off they went, John Rolf, Pocahontas, their son, and an Aboriginal entourage of about a dozen people, including her sister (to babysit) and brother-in-law, and her uncle who was doing a little promotional activity of his own, trying to enlighten the English clergy about the Powhatan religion.

Pocahontas was not the first Indian to go to Europe. Columbus brought some of us over after his very first visit. But she was the first princess and she acted like one. Pocahontas is stunning --gracious, poised with an incredible presence. She stands out in a crowd of courtiers not just because of her Indian good looks, but because she commands attention and respect. She is so at ease in her court dress that it is hard to believe that she spent all her life until two years ago barefoot and barebreasted. I guess royalty is royalty no matter where you are.

Pocahontas is a total star in England with a social life that is the envy of high society London. She hangs out on a regular basis with Queen Ann, meets King James, attends one of the most lavish masquerade balls in history (at that time, anyway) and goes to the theatre (they say she even met Shakespeare!). She is also briefly reunited with John Smith. It was an awkward encounter. Pocahontas had been told that John was dead and when he showed up at her door, she needed a moment to herself. Did she once have a teen-aged crush on him? Did she love him like a brother? Pocahontas never says.

For seven months they stayed in England. But the pollution, strange diet and lack of exercise took its toll on all the Indians in the group. Everyone was sick and a few of them died before they could get home. Pocahontas was one of them.

I used to think that it was horrible that Pocahontas married a colonizer. But you know, she probably never thought it was a big deal, not in a political way, anyhow. I am sure she never thought it would put her own identity in any kind of jeopardy. In her mind, and her family's too I bet, she would always be Indian. Marriage couldn't change that. Wearing cotton dresses instead of a buckskin apron couldn't change it. Even trying out a new religion wouldn't make her any less Indian than she was. It is only in the year 2000, the way we look at Indianness, that it makes her seem like a traitor at worst, or very, very shortsighted at best. For Pocahontas, going to England was probably a big adventure, I mean really big, like going to the moon! Man, would I love to read her memoirs.

 

Look at Me!
Imagining Indians