The master narrative of Pocahontas is that of a Powhatan princess living in early 1600s Virginia whose love for the white Jamestown colonialists allows peace between the rambunctious colonists and violent Powhatans. So taken with the white settlers, Pocahontas voluntarily leaves her Powhatan community to live with the colonialists, falls in love with one of the colonialists (in many versions of the story, a colonialist named John Smith), converts to Christianity, renames herself Rebecca, and moves to England.
This story has gained momentum through decades of historical discrediting of Native American nations as ignorant, sexualizing fictions of women of color, manifest destiny presentations of United States colonialism, and an emphasis on Virginia colonialist John Smith’s written (as opposed to the Powhatans’ oral) historical accounts of events in Pocahontas’ life. Within popular culture, this master narrative of Pocahontas has gained particular popularity through a series of films centering a fictionalized romantic relationship between Pocahontas and Smith: Pocahontas and John Smith (1924), Captain John Smith and Pocahontas (1953), Pocahontas: The Legend (1995), and, perhaps most widely known, Disney’s musicals Pocahontas (1995) and Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World (1998).
Examples from Children's Resources
Pocahontas, Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg (Film)
Gabriel, Mike and Eric Goldberg, directors. Pocahontas. Buena
Vista Pictures, 1995.
In this animated musical film, the handsome English soldier John Smith and his band of rowdy companions land in wooded Virginia in search of adventure and promises of glory from the King of England. The beautiful princess Pocahontas and her band of talking animal friends are confused by the settlers’ peculiar ways, but she quickly befriends Smith, and the two begin a secret romance. Pocahontas is torn between her forbidden love for Smith and her arranged marriage with a silent warrior from her Algonquin community. Ultimately Pocahontas saves Smith from being murdered by her own father, the Powhatan chief. The settlers and Powhatans find peace, and Smith and Pocahontas find love.
Surviving Jamestown: The Adventures of Young Sam Collier, Gail Langer Karwoski, illustrated by Paul Casale (Chapter Book)
Karwoski, Gail Langer. Surviving Jamestown: The Adventures of
Young Sam Collier. Illustrated by Paul Casale. Peachtree
This middle-grade chapter book follows the story of 12-year-old Sam Collier, page to the stoic, well-respected English explorer and leader John Smith. Sam accompanies Smith to the initial colonisation of Jamestown, where the settlers are struggling to survive in the new environment. The “Indians” are unwilling to help the dying men survive the rough winter, and many of the English settlers die as a result. This book depicts colonialism as hard work requiring endurance and tough masculinity, but ultimately a good adventure. Smith is nicer to the Native American community (and gives them more intelligence credit) than many of the other settlers, but still refers to them as “savages” who will “snatch you by your tails and roast you for dinner!” The book endorses Smith’s racism. Pocahontas is only a tangential character in the book, but Surviving Jamestown is included here as an example of the way the Pocahontas master narrative emphasizes the white Jamestown colonialists’ experiences in Virginia, depicting the Powhatans as ignorant, violent, and heartless.
Pocahontas: Princess of the New World, Kathleen Krull, illustrated by David Diaz (Picture Book)
Krull, Kathleen. Pocahontas: Princess of the New World.
Illustrated by David Diaz. Walker Children’s, 2007.
This picture book, like many contemporary depictions of Pocahontas, attempts to position itself as a more historical, honest account of the Pocahontas story than the animated Disney film. Unfortunately, this book falls into many common master narrative tropes. The story refers to Pocahontas as a princess and depicts the Powhatans as aggressive and hostile, ambushing Smith and letting the colonists eat their shoes in hunger. The book includes the disputed story of Pocahontas saving Smith. When Pocahontas is captured by the English, the story’s tone indicates that it is her father, Chief Powhatan, who is in the wrong for not bargaining for her release, rather than the colonists for kidnapping and ransoming her. Pocahontas is “curious” about the English’s customs and integrates herself into the settlers’ community. When she goes to England, it’s a grand time of dancing and parties. The book ends fittingly with the line “the English had gotten what they wanted.”