“’The True Story of Pocohontas’ stands out as one of the greatest true stories of family love, dedication and tragedy.”
Bobbie Whitehead, in Indian Country Today, March 2, 2007
Earlier this year I came across a book, The True Story of Pocohontas, whose story has stayed with me. I knew that I wanted to write about it, and several days ago, while thinking about the Thanksgiving holiday, I realized that this was the appropriate time.
Written by Dr. Linwood “Little Bear” Custalow, a leading oral historian of the Powhatan nation in Virginia, it tells the story of the first permanent European colony in what is now the USA in the tidewater region of Virginia. It does so from the viewpoint of the indigenous peoples who had been living there for many centuries when the Europeans arrived. It was just over 400 years ago, 1607, when the English arrived in what they called “Jamestown.”
Ten years later in 1617, according to this book, Pocohontas, beloved daughter of Powhatan chief Wahunsenaca, having endured kidnapping, confinement and rape at the hands of the English, was murdered on an English ship just as it was about to leave England and return to Virginia. She was killed because she had become convinced of English plans to take the land from the Powhatan people; the colonizers were afraid that, back home, she would find a way to escape and tell her father what she had learned.
“True Story” explains the interactions between the Powhatan and the English over those ten years. It reports on Powhatan concerns about the Spanish based on decades of bad experiences with them as they patrolled the Atlantic coast during the 16th century. “The Spanish threat influenced Wahunsenaca to both build alliances with the regional tribes and to make friends with the English.” (p. 17) But relations deteriorated quickly, as Captain John Smith and the English began taking corn at gunpoint, raping Powhatan women and, increasingly, taking control of cleared Powhatan land, killing or enslaving in the process.
Pocohontas was kidnapped in 1613. Some of the English leaders “wanted to capture Pocahontas because they believed her abduction would keep Wahunsenaca from leading an attack” against them in response to their atrocities (p. 48). And it worked for a time, until after the deaths of Pocohontas in 1617 and her father less than one year later. A few years after these traumatic events for the Powhatan peoples, the “uprising of 1622” killed close to 1/3 of the English. Battles continued until 1646 when a peace treaty was signed.
“True Story” rings true. And it’s not just because history teaches us that European colonization of North America led to the decimation of indigenous peoples across the continent as the colonizers pursued gold, land tobacco and other riches. It rings true as author Custalow, assisted by Angela L. “Silver Star” Daniel, provides not just information and facts but explanations for why things happened as they did, such as the Powhatan willingness to ally with the English because of concern about the Spanish. He explains that even as the English began their abusive conduct, Powhatan “cultural underpinnings” prevented a major retaliation by Powhatan leadership:
“Cultural foundations of Powhatan society included respect for life, seeking the good of the tribe and appeasing evil. Appeasing evil is linked with the concepts of preserving life and seeking the overall good of the community. It involves attempting to strike a balance between submitting to unwanted demands and preventing the loss of life.” (p. 55)
But Custalow also reports that Powhatan leaders were divided about how to respond to English atrocities. The priests “advised a swift retaliation against the English colonists after the kidnapping of Pocohontas. They perceived the danger that the English’s presence posed to the well-being of the whole, the entire Powhatan society.” (p. 55)
In retrospect it is clear that the Powhatan priests were right, although it is highly unlikely that a major retaliation at that time would have stopped the tide of European colonization.
Why did the surviving Powhatan people, through Custalow, decide that it was time for their oral history to be written down and published for others to see? Carl Custalow, brother of the author and a current Powhatan chief of the Mattaponi people, explains why in a letter at the beginning of the book: “Today the Mattaponi River [a major tidewater river] with its vast acres of wetland and endangered fish and wildlife, is threatened by a proposed dam, the King William Reservoir dam. Our very survival is once again threatened; if the river is destroyed, we have nowhere else to go.
“Today, we are not alone. Others have stepped forward to support us in our fight to save the river. For the first time, through mutual respect, people have become emotionally, if not physically, invested in our survival. People want to hear the truth. They are open to it. It is time to tell our oral history.”
The True Story of Pocohontas is more than historical and cultural truth about a false myth, a false myth like the Thanksgiving story, used to justify a profoundly unequal and unjust status quo. True Story, including the present-day struggle of the Mattaponi people and their allies against the King William Reservoir dam, can help us deepen our commitment to the essential struggle for justice, peace and a society at one with Mother Earth.
(True Story is published by Fulcrum Publishing Co, http://www.fulcrum-books.com.)
Ted Glick has been a progressive activist and organizer since 1968. Since 2003 he has prioritized work for climate justice and a stable climate. Past writings and other information can be found at http://www.tedglick.com.