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Custalow's Pocahontas: A Very Different Take on the Classic Tale

Jacklyn Temares

[1] "Wow!" said the white reviewer for the Virginia Gazette on reading The True Story of Pocahontas: The Other Side of History (2007) by Mattaponi historian Linwood "Little Bear" Custalow and his collaborator Angela "Silver Star" Daniel, who is an adopted Mattaponi and "designated anthropologist" for the tribe. Wow, indeed. Published in the year of the much bally-hoo'd Jamestown Quadricentennial triumphantly graced by white matriarch Queen Elizabeth, the book slams a two-by-four upside the head of the traditional Pocahontas tale "we" revere as American origin myth. The "other side of history" is bound to shock readers whose Pocahontas has been shaped in the generation from Disney through Malick. The "true" story is a sordid story of deceit, treachery, betrayal, conspiracy, brainwashing, greed, rape, and murder. Point by point, "Mattaponi sacred oral history" shatters entrenched cultural memory. Its full-court assault on "our" historical complacency demands attention, demands digestion.

[2] The Mattaponi is one of eight remaining tribes once part of a much larger thirty-two-tribe-strong "Powhatan chiefdom during the late seventeenth century" and only one of two tribes that were "able to retain reservation land" (xiv). Custalow -- brother of Chief Carl "Lone Eagle" Custalow, physician, and "the first Virginian Indian to graduate from a college and a medical school in Virginia" -- has spent his life, says Daniel, "learning the Mattaponi sacred oral history" (xxv). He is, in effect, the latest of a long line of quiakros, Powhatan priests responsible for passing down the tribe's stories from generation to generation and responsible for keeping the tribe's memories and history alive. Perhaps John Smith himself best captures concisely what Pocahontas means to "us" in his 1616 letter introducing her to Queen Anne: she "hazarded the beating out of her owne braines to save mine"; "she next under God, was . . . the instrument to preserve this Colonie from death, famine and utter confusion"; and she was "the first Christian ever of that Nation, the first Virginian ever spoke English, or had a child in mariage by an Englishman." But the True Story is the first written account of the tribe's oral history, their version of the Pocahontas tale.

[3] After 400 years of secrecy, what caused the Mattaponi to "come out"? "We are the people of the river," writes Chief Custalow, and "the Mattaponi River, with its vast acres of wetlands 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. We have no alternative but to fight the construction of this proposed dam" (xvii). In that desperate fight for life (which was ultimately successful in 2009), the Mattaponi found allies in such groups as the Sierra Club, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and the Southern Environmental Law Center []. "We are not alone," writes the Chief, "others have stepped forward to support us," and "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" (xvii-xviii). All politics, as they say, is local. The Chief would have his white supporters share another origin story, that of the Ur-oppression of the Powhatan.

[4] But there is another less explicit and perhaps even less conscious but ultimately more important reason for the Mattaponi to "come out," and it is embodied in the startling opening of historian Custalow's text: "The story of Pocahontas is first and foremost a great love story" (5). But he does not mean that love story. Rather, "the love that was the moving force within Pocahontas's life was the spiritual bond and filial affection between Pocahontas and her father, Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca, and the love they had for the Powhatan people" (5). In framing his story this way, historian Custalow is signaling that part of his motivation is reclaiming Pocahontas for an Indian audience. "To whites," says fellow student Robin Pertusi, "Pocahontas is a model of integration and assimilation, an object of desire -- America's sweetheart. But to her Native descendants, foremother Pocahontas is traitor, betrayer, whore -- an object of shame." And thus the mission of such Native American writers as Monique Mojica in Princess Pocahontas and the Blue Spots (1991) is to repair the intra-Indian breach that devastates Indian self-respect. The familiar image of the rebellious Pocahontas with arm upraised against her father wreaks havoc with Indian psychic health. Count physician Custalow part of that healing mission.

[5] Thus, the first chapter of the True History establishes Powhatan, not Smith, as the man in Pocahontas's life, the love of her life. The Mattaponi history immediately shifts the focus to the relationship between father and daughter. Powhatan, whose "personal name" was Wahunsenaca, favored Pocahontas greater than all his other children, for she was the product of his relationship with the wife he married for love and who died while giving birth to her (7, 12). After her death, Powhatan "found a spiritual connection to his lost wife in their child," for Matoaka "was all Wahunsenaca had remaining of the woman he had cherished" (7). Matoaka came to be called Pocahontas -- that is, "laughing and joyous one" -- after her mother, whose name was also Pocahontas (7). It is this "special love and respect" between Pocahontas and her father that is the driving force behind Pocahontas's actions and the theme for the Mattaponi tale:

So enduring was her love for her father that the story of Pocahontas cannot be told without talking about Wahunsenaca. All their actions were motivated by their love for each other. Wahunsenaca did everything he could to protect his daughter. In all that she did, through all that she endured, Pocahontas was guided by her love and respect for her father and for her people. Her love for her father never wavered, even though events to come would force them both onto a tragic path. (8, 9)
Thus, the reclamation project is immediately clear. In the self-congratulatory message of the white myth, Pocahontas "trades up" for a better life with the white God, a white husband, and adulation from a white Queen, dying perfectly remodeled, as in 1625 Samuel Purchas gloated, with her "soul aspiring to see and enjoy presently in heaven, what here she had joyed to heare and believe of her beloved Saviour." Not so, not so. According to Mattaponi sacred oral history, Pocahontas maintained her deep-rooted identity as a Native American. She never lost sight of who she was, where she came from, or the people she loved.

[6] After laying this significant foundation for his counter-narrative here in the first chapter, Custalow patiently moves chronologically through the traditional Pocahontas story -- the rescue, the mercy missions, abduction, conversion, marriage, England, death -- rebutting that story at each point. For instance, the source of the myth, the highly vaunted rescue of Smith from the death-dealing clubs of Powhatan's warriors simply didn't happen, first, because Smith was never in danger of death -- he was, in fact, made a werowance of the Powhatan nation in an effort to create an alliance with the English -- and, second, because, as a child, Pocahontas would not have been present at any such ceremonial or political occasions. The popular rescue tales of a risk-taking Pocahontas voluntarily supplying food to the hapless, starving colonists are equally false (23-28). The pre-pubescent, nearly naked child still playing with her toys could not order male warriors to take her to Jamestown, nor could she manage the twelve-mile trek by land or the 400-pound canoes by sea to visit alone. Instead, Pocahontas was allowed to go on these mercy missions, and, in fact, designated to walk in front of them as a sign, since she was Wahunsenaca's favorite child, as a sign of peace: "Pocahontas was the Powhatan symbol of peace" (28).

[7] In the traditional story, the abduction of Pocahontas by Captain Samuel Argall that leads to her captivity in Jamestown where her baptism and marriage take place is facilitated by the inordinate lust of her uncle Japazaws for, above all things, a copper pot. A demeaning story for sure. Japazaws betrays his niece, a girl he loves, the daughter of the leader of the Powhatan nation, for a pretty cooking appliance, like Judas betrays Christ for thirty pieces of silver. Shame on Japazaws and through him on Native American ethics and morality. Not surprisingly, "the long continuation of these implications by popular media and scholars is deeply offensive to Powhatan descendants," says Custalow, "it insinuates that the Potowomac valued material possessions over the love and commitment to their relatives and their paramount chief, that they were immoral" (51). And not surprisingly the Mattaponi sacred oral history tells a more complicated story in which Chief Japazaws was caught "off guard" by Argall and "put in the difficult position of making a decision between the lesser of two evils" -- give up Pocahontas or give up his people to the English "thunder sticks" (49). In the end, neither Japazaws, Pocahontas, or even Wahunsenca fought back, properly following "Powhatan cultural guidelines" to "preserve as much life as possible" (55). And the besmirching copper pot story? Why that was a "common tactic" of the English, a cover story, to evade responsibility (51).

[8] Pocahontas's conversion to Christianity and marriage to Rolfe occurred during her time as a hostage in Jamestown. Conventional white narratives portray Pocahontas as overcome with reverence for the superior ways of the whites and inspired to abandon her savage past and join civilized society. Mattaponi sacred oral history, though, sees a "brave" and "bright" but "terrified" and "brainwashed" and "deeply depressed" woman submitting "to the English settlers purely as a means of survival" (56, 57, 61). "Mattaponi sacred oral history does not elaborate on whether Pocahontas truly converted to Christianity or not," but "there is no indication that any Powhatan were present during her baptism" (58). The details of her sexual history, however, are starkly and shockingly clear -- and far from the romantic fairy tale we conventionally tell. Pocahontas was raped: on this "Mattaponi sacred oral history is very clear" (62). And possibly "by more than one person and repeatedly" (62). And most likely by Sir Thomas Dale, Jamestown governor (64). And consequently pregnant before her marriage: "Mattaponi oral history is adamant that Thomas was born out of wedlock," likely fathered by and named after said Dale (64). And though it is hard to say whether Pocahontas really loved Rolfe or not, "it is doubtful" (65). Conversely, "it is equally problematic to discern whether Rolfe loved Pocahontas" (65). He had "much prestige to gain" from marrying a princess, as well as much greed to satisfy from the Powhatan secrets for growing tobacco (65). And soon "tobacco became like gold," insuring that "the English colonists took more and more Powhatan land by force, killing and enslaving larger numbers of Powhatan people" (76). There's no whisper in our storybooks of such dire fruits of the Rebecca and John romance.

[9] The trip to England where the assimilated Pocahontas meets the King and Queen, is wined and dined, wins the hearts of the English people, and helps gain much needed support for the Virginia colony is the triumphant climax of our traditional stories. It is there, too, that she unexpectedly meets Smith again, having been previously told of his death, with such agitation that our stories are fueled by speculation that, as Custalow says, she was a "slighted lover" angry that he left without a good-bye (82). But in England according to Mattaponi sacred oral history Pocahontas "saw through their lies" (84). Her "fury" and "rage" at Smith stems from the "revelation" that "Smith had betrayed her father's trust, and her people were going to suffer terribly because of it" (82). This revelation turned Pocahontas into a loose cannon, so to speak, and the Virginia leaders feared a Pocahontas returning to the New World would be a danger to the future success of the colony because she had "new insights" into their "political strategy" to subjugate the Powhatan. And "so they plotted to murder her" (85). Murder. The coup de gras of the Mattaponi sacred oral history. Possibly by Dale-Rolfe-Argall-Reverend Whitaker -- one, some, or all, who knows? But murder. Murder. Custalow's pièce de résistance. So Pocahontas died, not of tuberculosis as our stories speculate, which would have been evident for days-weeks-months, but, after a dinner in Captain Argall's cabin at Gravesend on the return voyage, of poison -- a likelihood that Pocahontas confided to her sister in her death convulsions (83).

[10] Curiously, not much notice has been taken of Custalow's unsettling True Story of Pocahontas. One wonders if this is another example of white establishment erasure of Native American perspectives. There was, for instance, no review in the elite American Historical Review or the Journal of American History. But the book has had its beating. In a review of books marking the Jamestown Quadricentennial, J. Frederick Fausz finds it "flawed," unable to provide such facts as "the identity of Pocahontas's rapist, or the name of her first son," characterized by the "holier-than-thou bias of victimization" exemplified in such passages as "the Powhatan people lived the principles of Christianity more than those who professed faith in it," prompted and thus tainted, I suppose, by the current controversy over the King William Reservoir dam along the Mattaponi River (which is ironic in that it charges the Mattaponi with using the Pocahontas story to carry out a personal agenda, much like the other white representations of the tale have done), and seemingly lumped with those books by "opportunistic popular writers" who take advantage of the cultural moment and blur fact and fiction.

[11] As the saying goes, there are two sides to every story, but there is also a third side, and that is actually what we should think about here. It is important to look at different perspectives on Pocahontas's story, but it is also important to recognize that most likely no one side is totally accurate. What matters is that the Native American voice is heard and is a part of the mix when examining the story of Pocahontas. Some reviewers chose to focus on this aspect of the tale's contribution to the narrative rather than share in Fausz's skepticism. In the American Indian Culture and Research Journal, for instance, Lisa Heuvel identifies with Custalow's efforts to "[take] back history" in rewriting the Pocahontas tale through a Native American lens: "there are many sides to history, and some contest much of the colonial Virginia saga schoolchildren have grown up with. This narrative exemplifies how specific alternative histories reside in different cultures and can produce much different portraits of historical figures." Heuvel does not condemn Custalow so much as applaud his efforts to reveal another possible dimension to the renowned tale, thus encouraging readers to reexamine "one of America's most beloved origin myths." Heuvel writes that in adding this version of the story to the preexisting collection of Pocahontas tales, the publication of The True Story of Pocahontas "is another step toward understanding the American saga from multiple perspectives."

[12] True Story is a tragic take on the Pocahontas tale. Pocahontas is a symbol of peace, but she also exposes the treachery committed by the English against the Native American people. Custalow's True Story is hardly the happy fairy tale Pocahontas has come to be synonymous with in America today. True Story is not meant to entertain but to serve as a record of the atrocities the Native Americans suffered as a people. Whatever else Custalow hoped to accomplish in publishing this book, above all True Story serves to pass on this vital history. Custalow wrote The True Story of Pocahontas because knowing, telling, and keeping the story alive keeps the Mattaponi identity alive. Without their history, their culture and identity as a people would cease to exist.