- Prisoners of HistoryPocahontas, Mary Jemison, and the Poetics of an American Myth
Anyone interested in history will admit that it’s risky to take on the personas of historical characters—to impute motives to their actions, to “speak” for them, reimagining them as human beings apart from the narrative thread that delivers them to us. And yet what do we receive in most histories of Native people in the Americas during colonial times—characters pulled out of cultural context because those who wrote about them seldom knew or even tried to understand what it meant to be Native then? In popular culture, we receive worse: characters that have been manipulated to suit the agendas of media and marketing agencies, bearing little resemblance to their origins beyond their names.
As both a Native poet and a historical researcher, I am often caught in this dilemma, aware that the mainstream stories of our people are deeply flawed but unable to find more authentic accounts, usually because the American Indians remain voiceless or were deliberately silenced. This is particularly true for Native women—their daily activities and beliefs were of no interest to the colonial explorers and settlers whose accounts form the “primary sources” dear to American historians and teachers. And so it seems only right to go back to those accounts and to look for the Native voices, to try to learn more about them as people.
I’ve always found the story of Pocahontas troubling and avoided writing about her for that reason. In 2006 I visited Kent County, England, with a group of more than fifty Virginia Indians, and we saw the church at Gravesend where she is buried. In 2014 I was asked to speak about Pocahontas to the Jamestowne Society in Los Angeles, because that year marked the four-hundredth anniversary of her marriage to John Rolfe. I chose to speak about the roles of Native women at that time in our region, an attempt to add cultural depth to her story. It seemed then that perhaps I had something to say about her life and the situation in which [End Page 73] she found herself from the perspective of a Virginia Indian woman, and so I wrote a poem. But first I researched what we know about her and her people, turning to recent books and articles by reputable scholars, ignoring stories from earlier times, which cast her as that Indian girl who saw English culture as inherently superior to her own and who “helped the white man” because she loved him.
I also found myself drawn to another Native woman, born 150 years or so later, known to American “frontier history” as Mary Jemison but not nearly as well known as Pocahontas. Interestingly, Mary Jemison was born white. And so I wrote about her, too. This essay is the story of these two women as I see it and the story of two poems that emerged from their experiences.
not quite the fairy-tale princess
In the summer of 2015 the Pamunkey Indian Tribe of Virginia received notice from the U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs, that their efforts to obtain federal acknowledgment had finally met with success—permitting tribal members, for the first time in nearly four hundred years, to officially assert their claim as the descendants of the paramount chief Powhatan and his famous daughter, Pocahontas. All two hundred of them. In contrast, the non-Native Americans who also claim to descend from Pocahontas now number more than twenty thousand (Gleach 449). Many of them belong to an elite club that calls itself the ffv, the Founding Families of Virginia, as though no families lived here when the colonists arrived. Their grandparents and great-grandparents proclaimed descent from Pocahontas even during the period when anti-Indian sentiment was most virulent, when Virginia passed an antimiscegenation law known as the 1924 Racial Integrity Act. That law defined anyone with a drop of “Negro” blood as “colored” and felonized marriage between whites and persons of color. An exception was made, however, for those whose only non-Caucasian blood was one-sixteenth or less American Indian, to accommodate those...