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The True Story of Pocahontas Broke Me

Hello reader,

I hope you are taking the chance to enjoy autumn. I know that across the world many have experienced an exceptionally warm autumnal season, so I hope you’re able to welcome the crisp air and warmer colours.

I’m here with a book review and to share my gratitude to those who wrote it. Before I begin, I wanted to let you know that there is a pronunciation guide at the end. I am not sure about some of the words, but of those I do know, I will signpost them. Also I would like to issue a trigger warning here, as in this blog post I will be discussing topics such as rape, murder and generational trauma.

It hadn’t really occurred to me to study Pocahontas in depth. For me, it was obvious that her story was tragic. I know how wildly inaccurate and offensive the Disney movie is to her history and the Powhatan community. It goes without saying really. So it wasn’t something that I felt I needed to spend my time researching.

Having said that, I wanted to read this book for years. Page after page, I realised that I had held on to the winner’s narrative, and in this case, by winner I mean coloniser’s: she died of tuberculosis, she saved Captain John Smith, they were in love, etc etc. I know that decolonising my mind is a long journey, but I didn’t realise that this would throw me off as much as it did. It’s really hard for me to explain how I felt after first reading it. I was so shocked by the events of her life that it shook me to my core.

For those of you that have not read this, here’s what I have learned from The True Story of Pocahontas by Dr Linwood “Little Bear” Custalow and Angela L. Daniel “Silver Star”:

  • Pocahontas’s name given at birth was Matoaka. Her mother was named Pocahontas. However, little Matoaka looked very much like her mother and she was often called Pocahontas, almost as a term of endearment.

  • Pocahontas’ father Chief Powhatan Wahunsenacawh befriended John Smith and truly liked him. Wahunsenacawh believed that if he befriended the English, the Spanish would not do to them what they were doing to Indigenous communities in the south.

  • The English colonists would consider trade to be holding someone at gunpoint until they gave them food, and then throwing some coloured beads at their feet.

  • Pocahontas was married to Kocoum and had a child at the age of 14. This age was common for marriage and childrearing in the 1600s so while that might be shocking, it was normal. What is important here is that she was married and settled in her home and culture.

  • Pocahontas was kidnapped, stolen from her husband and child, baptised, converted to Christianity, renamed Rebecca, raped, bore a second child, married an Englishman, was showcased to royalty in England and was murdered, all within one year.

  • Sacred Mattaponi oral history explains that Pocahontas was taken because she was the most favoured of all of the Chief’s children, and taking her would ensure that the Powhatans do not retaliate for how badly they were being treated by who they considered their allies and friends.

  • She was also taken as a bargaining chip. If the English were to marry into the family, they could become friendly with the quiakros (priests) who held onto the knowledge of processing tobacco. The colonists hadn’t found gold and silver like the Spanish had in the south, and they were running out of time - funding was about to be cut from the colony. Tobacco became their gold.

There is so much more to be said about how incredible this book is. It is written in the way that oral history is spoken, like a story being retold to you by someone standing in front of you. It’s easy to understand, and it’s engaging, it’s what we need to be learning about in schools, especially here in England. Her body rests in St George’s Church in Gravesend, England, but exact location is unknown as the church was rebuilt after being destroyed in a fire.

It is devastating to think that historians would try to dispute the history as told by her descendants, but it is sadly the case. However, if you do read this book, please consider that it is always the winner’s narrative that is loudest. It is important to hear the victim’s side of the story. In many cases, people outside of Indigenous communities aren’t privy to their histories. They’re not meant for us. But the fact that this story was sent to print shows how vital it is for this to be heard.

The biography of Pocahontas is the first known record of a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Woman. Now there are a few acronyms here, and it’s important that you dear listener are aware of the variants. The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement can also be known as MMIW, MMIWG2S, and MMIR, where G stands for girls, 2S stands for Two Spirit, and R stands for relatives. It is an epidemic of disproportionate violence towards First Nations and Native American women and a grassroots movement that raises awareness of this through organised marches, building a database of the missing, art installations and more.

Symbols related to this movement include red dresses and red handprints. Red is seen as the only colour that spirits can see, so wearing red is allowing the spirits of MMIW to be among the living and have their voices heard through their families and communities. Auli’i Cravalo, the actress who voiced Moana, was seen with a red handprint across her face at The Power premiere in March of this year. The 5th of May is the official MMIW day, so please check out the links* below for more information on how you can support the movement and consider wearing red on May 5th.

I’m so grateful to Dr Linwood “Little Bear” Custalow, Angela L. Daniel “Silver Star” and the Mattaponi community for choosing to share their sacred and previously unpublished oral history with the world. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.

Pronunciation Guide:

Matoaka - Mah-TOE-ah-ka

Powhatan - Pow-wha-ten

Wahunsenacawh - Wa-HUN-sne-Kah

Kocoum - Co-cu-um

Mattaponi - Mat-ah-POH-nye (The ending is not ‘pony’. If you speak Spanish, the last syllable more like the ñ sound)

Quiakros - Quee-a-crows (online resource - unsure if this is correct)

*Please be kind to yourself as you explore these links; everyone deserves the right to wellbeing.


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