- The Washington Times - Friday, February 9, 2007

RICHMOND — She has more personas than Madonna, the saintly glow of Joan of Arc and the enigmatic spell of the “Mona Lisa.”

In her 22 years, Pocahontas left a legacy that endures in history texts, in stone relief at the U.S. Capitol Rotunda and in a beguiling parable of Jamestown’s settlement by commerce-minded explorers.

But 400 years after America’s first lasting English settlement was established in a marshy peninsula on the James River, history’s version of the favored daughter of a powerful Indian leader is being looked at anew, and quite critically.

Scholars say the lithe teenager often portrayed with a sexuality beyond her years was a creation of English males who embellished on a daring but innocent child. Some Virginia Indians also are speaking out on what they say is the true story of Pocahontas, drawing from the tradition of oral histories. They say they are reclaiming a narrative that for years was written by people who had little knowledge of their culture and low regard for their generational recollections.

It is more than correcting history books, they say.

“This is more personal,” said Angela L. Daniel, an anthropologist who co-authored a new book, “The True Story of Pocahontas: The Other Side of History.” She wrote the book with Linwood “Little Bear” Custalow, a member of the Mattaponi tribe, one of eight recognized tribes in Virginia.

The traditional view of Pocahontas is on display at the Virginia Historical Society. The exhibit, which opens this weekend, comes amid an 18-month state commemoration of the four centuries since Jamestown’s settlement in 1607.

In paintings, prints, sculpture and popular representations, the short life of Pocahontas is presented in an almost biblical tableau: Pocahontas rescuing Capt. John Smith in 1607 from an execution ordered by her father, Powhatan; Pocahontas warning Smith that her father was planning again to kill him; her kidnapping by settlers; Pocahontas converting to Christianity and marrying Englishman John Rolfe; and Pocahontas dying in England in 1617.

Pocahontas is shown in various forms of nudity, which was the custom for young Indian girls until puberty. But instead of deerskin aprons, also the fashion for older girls and women, she is depicted in flowing, often diaphanous covers. Her appearance ranges from teenage sprite to the European ideal of feminine beauty.

“This is what we know, and this is all we know,” said William M.S. Rasmussen, a curator of the exhibit. “And it’s all the English perspective, all by men.” He also said Pocahontas “left us no statements as to why she did what she did.”

Mr. Rasmussen said the exhibit does not purport to be the only accounting of the subject’s life and is intended to engage the visitor.

Camilla Townsend, author of “Pocahontas and Powhatan Dilemma,” used a variety of sources to arrive at a different view of Pocahontas and her portrayal. “The whole narrative that is so cherished in America is pornographic — in that the girl in the story has no needs, ambitions, rages or opinions of her own,” she said.

Miss Townsend raises many of the questions cited by other historians and Indian critics of the Pocahontas story.

Smith wrote of his dramatic rescue after the deaths of Pocahontas and many of those who could have corroborated his story. At best, critics argue, Smith’s capture could have been a misinterpreted Indian ritual, such as an adoption ceremony. Miss Daniel said that no children would have been allowed at the ceremony.

Smith, while a widely acknowledged braggart, was generally agreed to be fearless and more inclined to engage the Indians than his fellow settlers. That did not extend to his purported romance with Pocahontas, a coupling promoted in director Terrence Malick’s dreamy film “The New World” and the Disney animated film that bears her name.

Miss Daniel, Miss Townsend and other critics contend that Pocahontas played a key role in Jamestown, though perhaps not as dramatic as Smith and his fellow settlers would have us believe. The child, Miss Daniel writes, was the embodiment of peace the Indians sought with the newcomers.

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