Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma •
Camilla Townsend • New York: Hill and Wang, 2004 • xii, 226 pp. • $25.00
Reviewed by Susan Sleeper-Smith, associate professor of history at Michigan State University. She has recently published Indian Women And French Men: Rethinking Cultural Encounter In The Western Great Lakes and is working on a monograph entitled, "Inventing Indians: Art, Artists, And The Culture Of Colonialism."
Pocahontas is a public icon whose life is routinely recounted in historical narratives about colonial Virginia. These numerous histories share similar perspectives, and there seems little new to reveal about the life of Pocahontas. But Camilla Townsend challenges us to look again at these long familiar tales. She relates a far more fascinating narrative than the wishful thinking that transformed Pocahontas into an Englishwoman, refuting long standing depictions of her as a favored "Indian princess" and "heroine." Instead, Townsend relies on a diffuse body of period literature, from poetry to newspapers, to recast the cultural context of migrating Englishmen and then simultaneously recasts our understanding of this Indian landscape. The dearth of written indigenous evidence leads Townsend to re imagine creatively the encounter from a native perspective through the blending of cultural knowledge and recent scholarly findings. Townsend situates Pocahontas within an Indian world that was curious about the English as newcomers and willing to exchange materials, technology, and ideas. Consequently, this author's fascinating narrative about Pocahontas reveals a figure who was assertive, youthful, and athletic, but more importantly, a figure who furthered the marital strategies of diplomacy promoted by the Powhatan Confederacy.
The strength of this book rests on its ability to narrate a past that resonates with the present. What emerges from this narrative is an English world more self-promotional and brutal than many readers have heretofore encountered. Jamestown's inability to be self-sustaining situates English survival on the extent to which Indians were victimized and Indian captives brutalized for their food supplies. These social patterns bear perilously close parallels to present day terrorist tactics.
Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma is not crafted around the cult of the individual, rather this is biography situated in the cultural context of the time period. Townsend provides a remarkably insightful lens into how human actions were part of larger social fabrics. Townsend's work shines because of her familiarity with English culture, and she mines these sources to show how Indians were depicted as animalistic and uncivilized in a variety of written sources at a variety of social levels. In pamphlets, sermons, and instructions to colonists, the English stressed "the importance of filling the world with their religion …" in a "waste country, where the people doe live like Deere" (p. 90). Indians were dispossessed of their lands even before Englishmen arrived on North American soil. This book exposes the racial biases of a colonizing nation that expected to dispossess, if not exterminate, indigenous peoples.
Some historians may question the legitimacy of weaving together the written evidence of culturally produced behaviors and the sparse documentary evidence produced by Indians. Townsend extends the traditional boundaries of historical scholarship, and her work parallels that of Daniel Richter's Facing East from Indian Country, which cautiously speculates about how Indians perceived and understood the foreign invaders. Townsend is less cautious in explaining her synthetic approach. Because several terms are imprecisely defined or assumptions too broadly generalized, some readers may reject the implications of this historical narrative on the basis of their "particular" knowledge. But the broad application of terms such as Algonkian (a referential term for language grouping) or the generalization of assumptions that Algonkian speaking cultures were matrilineal (most were patrilineal) should not become the grounds for challenging the author's more important implications about Jamestown as a site of encounter. Rather than envision our ancestors as peoples who "wanted to found towns and work the land themselves," Camilla Townsend offers us the opportunity to imagine a people who "wanted to be lords of the manor, and they wanted the Indians to be something akin to serfs" (p. xi).