Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma

By Sleeper-Smith, Susan | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, October 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma


Sleeper-Smith, Susan, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma * Camilla Townsend * New York: Hill and Wang, 2004 * xii, 226 pp. * $25.00

Pocahontas is a public icon whose life is routinely recounted in historical narratives about colonial Virginia. These numerous histories share similar perspectives, and there seems little new to reveal about the life of Pocahontas. But Camilla Townsend challenges us to look again at these long familiar tales. She relates a far more fascinating narrative than the wishful thinking that transformed Pocahontas into an Englishwoman, refuting long-standing depictions of her as a favored "Indian princess" and "heroine." Instead, Townsend relies on a diffuse body of period literature, from poetry to newspapers, to recast the cultural context of migrating English-men and then simultaneously recasts our understanding of this Indian landscape. The dearth of written indigenous evidence leads Townsend to re-imagine creatively the encounter from a native perspective through the blending of cultural knowledge and recent scholarly findings. Townsend situates Pocahontas within an Indian world that was curious about the English as newcomers and willing to exchange materials, technology, and ideas. Consequently, this author's fascinating narrative about Pocahontas reveals a figure who was assertive, youthful, and athletic, but more importantly, a figure who furthered the marital strategies of diplomacy promoted by the Powhatan Confederacy.

The strength of this book rests on its ability to narrate a past that resonates with the present. What emerges from this narrative is an English world more self-promotional and brutal than many readers have heretofore encountered. Jamestown's inability to be self-sustaining situates English survival on the extent to which Indians were victimized and Indian captives brutalized for their food supplies. These social patterns bear perilously close parallels to present-day terrorist tactics.

Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma is not crafted around the cult of the inchvidual, rather this is biography situated in the cultural context of the time period. Townsend provides a remarkably insightful lens into how human actions were part of larger social fabrics. Townsend's work shines because of her familiarity with English culture, and she mines these sources to show how Indians were depicted as animalistic and uncivilized in a variety of written sources at a variety of social levels. …

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