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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Pocahontas--The Woman, the Myth, the Legend

 One of my sons is taking a mythology class this semester.  The class is centered on Greek and Roman myths, but as so often happens, one thing leads to another, and he is writing a paper for another class on an American myth--Pocahontas.  I am fond of the saying that there is nothing new since the Greeks, in that human behavior is relatively stable over the centuries, in that the things that motivate us and the things that comfort us remain largely similar over generations.   I have not studied even the best known American myths, so it has been very enlightening to learn about the real people behind well known stories.  I believe that Pocahontas would be termed a legend, which is a story that involves humans doing heroic acts.
 The picture above is an actual depiction of the real Pocahontas, who did marry an Englishman, John Rolph, had a mixed race child, and traveled to England to demonstrate the possibilities that existed for making Native Americans more like the British.  The part of the story that is deleted is that she was far from a willing participant in the whole charade--she was kidnapped as a young girl and held captive by the settlers--this was a frequent occurrence.  Warring Native American tribes did the same to each other as well.  So Pocahontas, the daughter of an important chief, would have known that if she cooperated with her captors, she had a chance to survive.  She learned English, converted to Christianity, became literate, and transformed herself into the poster girl for the English ability to tame the savage indian.  She died a lonely and miserable death far from her native home.
The picture to the right is from a mid-19th century advertisement, using a very sexualized Pocahontas to entice men, presumably, to buy tobacco.  The west was still pretty wild at that point in history--the railroads had yet to be completed that would make travel accessible to all Americans to the West Coast, and so the romanticized--and derogatory--image of a Native American woman is perhaps understandable--what I can't get over is that this same image is being marketed on merchandise today--you can buy this refrigerator magnet, or a necktie, or a T-shirt or a totebag with this very same image on it.  We have not progressed all that far from our Civil War roots when it comes to our ability to see how demeaning the images of Native Americans that we use are in the 21st century.

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