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Transforming Assumptions

Engagement with the Pocahontas master narrative requires grappling with several recurring prominent and harmful assertions:


Master Narrative

At the time of the start of the Jamestown settlement, Pocahontas was an adult woman.

Pocahontas was a princess.

Pocahontas saved the English colonist John Smith from execution by the Powhatans.

Pocahontas fell in love with and married John Smith.

Pocahontas’ played an active peace-keeping role between the Powhatans and the colonialists. Pocahontas is a symbol of the “good both-sides” Native American.

Pocahontas willingly immersed herself in English colonial life and Christianity.

The Powhatans were aggressive, primitive, and unintelligent.

John Smith’s diary and other colonialist written accounts are the authoritative history of events at Jamestown and in Pocahontas’ life.

The Powhatan nation history is one of the past.

There is a definitive account of Pocahontas’ story.

Counter Narrative

At the time of the start of the Jamestown settlement, Pocahontas was likely about 10 years old.

Pocahontas was the favorite daughter of Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca, but not considered royalty by her community.

Smith wrote in a letter to Queen Anne of Denmark that Pocahontas saved him from execution, but historians suspect that Smith invented this incident in hopes of catching some of the celebrity status accompanying Pocahontas in England at the time.

Though Pocahontas did know John Smith well, she only knew him when she was a child. Pocahontas did marry another English Jamestown colonist John Rolfe, but it is unclear if this was a voluntary marriage or one enforced by Pocahontas’ captivity at Jamestown.

As the favorite daughter of the Powhatan chief, Pocahontas was used as a peace-keeping symbol (bringing messages and food on behalf of her father). It is unclear if she independently helped the colonists.

Pocahontas became immersed in colonial life through forced captivity.

The Powhatans’ land and communities were invaded by colonists, and were in no way primitive or unintelligent.

The Powhatans and their descendants have maintained an oral history of events at Jamestown and of Pocahontas’ life that contradicts many of Smith and the colonists’ assertions.

There are many contemporary Powhatan communities, including 8 state-recognized nations.

We do not have any first-hand accounts of Pocahontas’ experience and must rely on secondary sources.

Certainly these are not all the points needing reframing within the Pocahontas master narrative, but they are some of the most harmful and strong starting points for shifting the conversation. When selecting resources for teaching about Pocahontas, consider how the resource addresses these master narrative tropes. Look for resources that complicate these master narrative. Keep in mind that few resources will address all of these master narrative positions, so you can try combining multiple resources to amplify each of their strengths. At points where the resource does not address a master narrative trope, you can step in as the instructor to introduce counter narratives and help guide discussion on this topic.

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