Academic journal article Journal of Humanistic Counseling, Education and Development

Debunking the Pocahontas Paradox: The Need for a Humanistic Perspective

Academic journal article Journal of Humanistic Counseling, Education and Development

Debunking the Pocahontas Paradox: The Need for a Humanistic Perspective

Article excerpt

   Historical and contemporary stereotypes of Native American Indian women
   have resulted in inaccurate and insensitive images. Mass media, movies, and
   printed materials continue to portray Native American Indian women as
   either princesses or savages. The purpose of this article is to provide a
   more humanistic perspective of this population.

Native American Indian women are affected by nonhumanistic myths and stereotypes that are promulgated by the media, popular literature, and movies. The "Pocahontas paradox" represents a dilemma for Native American Indian women. This historical movement has persisted in the romanticization and vilification of Native American Indian women (Peregoy, 1999).

   In this movement from political symbolism (where the Indian women defended
   America [in the early 1600s], to psychosexual symbolism (where she defends
   or dies for White lovers), we can see part of the Indian woman's dilemma.
   To be "good," she must defy her own people, exile herself from them, become
   White, and perhaps suffer death. (Green, 1976, p. 704)

Although there are tremendous variations in Native American Indian tribes and nations historically and contemporarily, the traditional perspectives of Native American Indian women can be generalized. Generally, Native American Indian women value being mothers and rearing healthy families; spiritually, they are considered to be extensions of the Spirit Mother and continuators of their people; socially, they serve as transmitters of cultural knowledge and caretakers of children and relatives (LaFromboise, Berman, & Sohi, 1994). A woman's identity in traditional Native American Indian life is ultimately rooted in her spirituality, extended family, and tribe (Green, 1976). They see themselves in harmony with the biological, spiritual, and social worlds.

A traditional Cheyenne saying is that a nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground (Bataille & Sands, 1984). Native American Indian women have struggled to keep their hearts off the ground by being strong. Their strength has been related through oral stories (e.g., "A Woman's Fight, A Warrior's Daughter" and "The Warrior Maiden"; Allen, 1989). A "lack of information about significant Indian women in ethnographic publications" (Allen, 1989, p. 27) inspired the collecting of these stories.

The past 20 years have witnessed a renewed interest in rewriting the history of Native American Indian women (Mihesuah, 1998). The central problem has been the lack of Native American Indian perspectives (i.e., emic) in writing. An examination of the roles of Native American Indian women is needed within "their own societies and society at large [by taking] a closer look, not from an outsider's viewpoint, but through modes of expression within tribal society" (Bataille & Sands, 1984, p. viii). The outsider's perspective (i.e., etic) often leads to "incorrect or undeveloped [findings], providing only partial answers to complicated questions about Native women" (Mihesuah, 1998, p. 37).

This article addresses some of the issues of Native American Indian women in an emic and humanistic manner. These issues are (a) the historical roles of Native American Indian women, (b) Native American Indian women's roles after European contact, (c) the Native American Indian female stereotypes, (d) the evolving social problems of Native American Indian women, and (e) the influence of level of acculturation.


Content knowledge and value awareness of Native American Indian people, both from historical and contemporary perspectives, are imperative to gaining an understanding of this population. The long history of interaction that has occurred between Native American Indians and European Americans can be divided into five time periods, which have been determined largely by the interaction of the federal government with Native American Indians (M. …

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