Speaker: Kimberly Schmidt
In 1608, Captain John Smith, a major figure in today’s sermon, sailed up the waters of the Chesapeake Bay from Jamestown Colony. He sailed up what we now call the Anacostia River and disembarked onto Nacotchtank lands. Smith and his crew found a riparian paradise where woodland forests stretched long fingers into shallow coastal plains. In his journals and writings, he noted water bison, sturgeon six feet long, and a landscape marked with abundance and natural beauty. He found the land and tributaries inhabited by clans, family groupings who fished and farmed. They traded as far north as Maine and as far south as the Florida Keys. They had lived here for thousands of years and their creation stories were from this place and of this place. By the end of the 1600s, the Nacotchtank people had been displaced and dispossessed of their clans, land, culture, and livelihood. They were pushed west in an early version of the Trail of Tears. Ridden with European diseases and reduced to remnants, the survivors assimilated into the Piscataway Nation. I pause to acknowledge the Nacotchtank people and their land which we now inhabit.
Esther 2:15-18; 7:1-4; and 8:3-6
(New English Bible)
2:15-23 When the turn came for Esther…to go to the king, she asked for nothing to take with her…and Esther charmed all who saw her. When she was taken to King Xerxes in the royal palace…the king loved her more than any of his other women and treated her with greater favour and kindness…he put a royal crown up her head and made her queen in place of Vashti. Then the king gave a great banquet for all his officers and courtiers, a banquet in honour of Esther. He also proclaimed a holiday throughout the provinces and distributed gifts worthy of a king.
7:1-4 Again on that second day, over the wine, the king said, “Whatever you ask of me will be given to you, Queen Esther. Whatever you request of me, up to half my kingdom, it shall be done.” Queen Esther answered, “If I have found favour with your majesty, and if it please your majesty, my request and petition is that my own life and the lives of my people may be spared. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, slain, and exterminated. If it had been a matter of selling us, men and women into slavery, I should have kept silence; for then our plight would not be such as to injure the king’s interest.”
8:3-6. Once again Esther spoke before the king, falling at his feet in tears and pleading with him to avert the calamity planned by Haman the Agagite and to frustrate his plot against the Jews. The king stretched out the golden sceptre to Esther, and she rose and stood before the king, and said, “May it please your majesty: if I have found favour with you, and if the proposal seems right to your majesty and I have won your approval, let a writ be issued to recall the letters which Hamon the Agagite wrote in pursuance of his plan to destroy the Jews in all the royal provinces. For how can I bear to see the calamity which is coming upon my race? Or how can I bear to see the destruction of my family?
This sermon investigates the lives of Esther and Pocahontas and as such spans time and place. The lives of Pocahontas and Esther are separated by hundreds of years: Scholars believe that Esther’s story took place in ancient Persia in the 470s and 80s BC. Pocahontas, a member of the Pamunkey Tribe, lived in what we now call Virginia, in the early 1600s. Both women are known for many things:
Interpreter and bridger of cultures
Charmer of Kings
Savior of her People from genocide.
Bringer of Corn
Heroine of Colonists
Translator of languages
Interpreter and bridger of Cultures
and…Mother of our Nation?
Does Pocahontas deserve to be remembered as a founding mother of our country? I believe so and “rightly remembering” her is an appropriate exercise on the Fourth of July, the day our nation celebrates its beginnings.
So let’s engage in a little rightly remembering. Let’s start with the stories:
The book of Esther is one of two books in the Bible named after a woman. The other is the Book of Ruth. The Book of Esther should probably be renamed Hadassah, her Jewish name. Esther is her English name. Esther was brought as a teenager into the court of Xerxes. His queen, Vashti, had defied him. After 180 days of festivities, Xerxes called on Queen Vashti to wear her crown and display her beauty in his court. She refused. Perhaps she was tired from too much partying. Xerxes was incensed and decreed that throughout his lands, which stretched from Ethiopia to India, women were to obey their husbands. In the words of the Bible: “Letters were sent to every province in its own script and to every people in their own language, in order that each man might be master in his own house and control all his own womenfolk.” Out of this patriarchal situation, Queen Vashti was deposed and Esther was selected for Xerxes’ court. Esther rose from the Tribe of Benjamin, a marginalized people in the Jewish diaspora, to become a prominent advisor, negotiator, and the high Queen. She did this in part by assimilating into Persian culture and by taking risks. More than once she risked her own life to stand before King Xerxes and expose those plotting against her people. She is remembered as having saved her people, marginalized Jews in Persia, from genocide.
There are interesting parallels with Pocahontas’ life.
It’s likely that every school child in the United States knows some version of Pocahontas’ story. The mere mention of her name even now, over 400 years after her death in 1617 conjures up a raft of responses.
One response is to invoke her name as a racist slur, most recently brought back into mainstream American use by the 45th president of the United States. He used her name to mock Massachusetts Senator, Elizabeth Warren.
Another, more positive response, is of romantic legends and disneyfied images about a beautiful Indian princess, the daughter of a powerful chief. She saved a gallant and daring English soldier, Captain John Smith, from a certain death. The romantic version of the story is often dismissed by historians because, among other things, Smith wrote in several different places about being saved by indigenous women. It seems wherever he sailed, he got into trouble, only to be rescued by a native princess.
Events on which the romantic version of Pocahontas’ life were based, started in 1606 when Pocahontas met Smith in her village near the Jamestown colony in Virginia. Smith was a leader in the Virginia Company’s colonization efforts. She was one of several children of Powhatan, the head chief in the area. She is thought to have been born in about 1595 and was 10-12 years old when she met Smith. She was a young girl, certainly not of courtship or marrying age. Smith had just been captured by Powhatan’s warriors. When captured, Smith was on an expedition not of hunting, exploration or scouting the terrain, but of surviving and begging. The Jamestown settlement was on the brink of starvation and collapse. The colony was in precarious straits and he was on a desperate quest for corn.
According to Smith’s version, he was captured and taken to a council where a death sentence was passed. Raised war clubs did not stop a beautiful Indian princess from rushing to his side, holding her hands over his head and pleading for mercy.
Captain Smith’s fabrication of his encounter with Pocahontas was published in 1624 years after all of the main characters with the exception of himself had passed away (so no one was around to contradict his version of historical events or even to say if the story was based on anything other than imagination). Even though his version of history is largely discounted by historians as a fairy tale there are still some “kernels of truths.”
1. One kernel: While he stayed as a guest in Powhatan’s lodge he met the lively Pocahontas whose real Indian names meant both “spoiled child” and “playful one.” She gave Smith lessons in her Algonquin language and he taught her English. We know this because he wrote of their language lessons and even jotted down many of the phrases they exchanged. She was a cultural bridge builder, but not in the sense of a romantic, disney princess. She and her father’s people were not threatened by weak English colonizers, who were clearly unable to organize themselves into effective villages and harvest food from the surrounding bountiful rivers and lands. Instead Pohawtan and his people desired to learn the English language as a means to form trading partnerships.
After Smith’s return to Jamestown, Pocahontas visited the settlement, regularly bringing corn and other foodstuffs. Smith wrote that Pocahontas “preserv[ed] the Colonie from death, famine and utter confusion.”
She was playful and a number of colonists remarked in their letters and writings on her ability to turn cartwheels. She was also capable of turning mental cartwheels. She must have been remarkably adept at languages as there is ample evidence in the historical record that she functioned as a “useful and successful translator” within a few months of the establishment of Jamestown. She translated, brought food, and was a regular presence in Jamestown. She was a child ambassador.
2. Another kernel of truth: As a ten-twelve year old Pocahontas would likely not have been present at the ceremony during which Smith felt his life was threatened. (By the way, some historians think it may have been an adoption ceremony, a way to cement trading alliances with Smith’s sickly and poor colonizing cohorts. Powhatan was interested in obtaining English firearms and there’s evidence that Native women preferred English cloth.) Even though Pocahontas was likely not at the ceremony, women were. The story we’ve inherited speaks to the prominent place women had in tribal life. We know from firsthand accounts–letters and narratives by missionaries, priests, army officers, captives, and trading partners–that throughout Algonquin-speaking lands women had a legitimate and powerful voice in public affairs, which neither European nor, indeed, many other NA women, could claim. Among Algonquin-speaking peoples, the role of chief was inherited through the female line so that when a chief died he was replaced by his sister’s son. Older women selected and unseated male chiefs, served as assistants to chiefs, controlled planting, harvesting, crops and food supplies. Importantly, older women oversaw the public treasury. They were the farmers, men did not farm, and land and goods were passed from mother to daughter. Women had their own representatives on councils. Among the Iroquois, an Algonquin-speaking tribe, women made the decision to go to war. In fact, an elder Iroquois woman decided that the Mohawks, members of the Five Nations, would fight on the side of the British during the Revolutionary War. Pocahontas did not save Captain Smith in the manner he romantically described yet there is a kernel of truth in his tale. Females certainly had the power to determine life or death.
3. Another kernel of truth to the story is that she was indeed romantically linked to a white man. She married John Rolfe, not John Smith. Marriage to men outside tribal kinship networks was a common undertaking for Native American women across the continent. For many Nations it was a part of women’s culture to marry not for love but to build economic and trade alliances. The history of Euro-American expansion– from the East Coast to west from Russian settlements in Alaska through Canada and into what is now northern California, and from Mexico to the southerwestern US–this history is filled with European men making alliances with Native American nations through marriage to women from powerful, high status families. Remember that in many Native American cultures and all eastern woodland tribes, “The clan was the basic social unit, and kinship the basis of economic and political relationships.” If a European man wanted to influence trade, make peace, purchase corn, sell desirable items such as kettles, cloth or guns, one way to do so was through a marital alliance with a high status bride. Rolfe sought Jamestown colony’s Governor Thomas Dale’s consent to marry Pocahontas by letter in 1614, saying he was not led by “‘carnall affection: but for the good of this plantation [and] our countrie … and for the converting to the true knowledge of God and Jesus Christ, an unbelieving creature’.” Seeing the chance for peace, Governor Dale and Powhatan approved. Pocahontas converted, taking the name Rebecca on baptism. The couple were married at Jamestown on April 5th,1614.
Once married, a Euro-American man was welcomed into Native American kinship networks. He was adopted and considered a son. After the first child of the union was born, it was common for the Euro-American man to participate in a ceremony that made him an official part of the tribe. Many Native American tribes were matrilineal and the children of these unions were raised by the mother and her female relatives.
In Pocahontas’ case, marriage to Rolfe brought about a fragile peace, known as the Pocahontas Peace, and honored by Powhatan, Governor Dale and the Jamestown Colony.
John Rolfe, Pocahontas’ husband, was a wealthy planter. He was the first English planter to plant and harvest tobacco for international trade. He somehow managed to get his hands on the rare and heavily protected tobacco seeds from southern areas under Spanish control. Many historians now agree that the tobacco seeds he acquired, by hook or by crook, were planted and harvested under Pocahontas’s supervision. It was she who taught him how to dry tobacco by hanging it instead of spreading it on the ground in the English fashion. Tobacco secured the fortunes of the struggling Jamestown colony. Tobacco remains a crop that requires significant labor and in 1619 (two years after Pocahontas’ death) English planters imported the first Africans to grow and process the plant from planting to shipping.
4. Pocahontas was a cultural bridge builder. She was married and baptized. Her baptized name was Rebecca. She was the first English convert to Chrisitinaity. She and John Rolfe produced a baby whom she named Thomas. The Rolfes with Thomas sailed to England in 1616. She appeared in James I’s English Court not as a savage, as English people had come to characterize Native Americans, but as “wholly civilized.” She was clothed in Elizabethan garments. She became the toast of English society and the Virginia Company, the sponsors and financial backers of the Jamestown colony, used her presence to advertise for more colonists. While in England, Pocahontas sat for a portrait. Some historians believe that her steady, fierce gaze and the Algonquin word for her tribal lands inscribed under her portrait is evidence of her loyalty to her people. There was also a conversation between Smith and Pocahontas in which Pocahontas accused him of selling out her people and land.
In spite of these kernels of truth, there are several problematic aspects to her story, paramount among them–the idea that her action of saving Smith was fundamentally a bridge-building statement and instituted Indian-English amicable relations. In this narrative, Pocahontas’ heroic act saves and exonerates the English colonizers and she becomes not just an unwitting deliverer of a single white male but someone whose eloquence, expressed in her act, deliberately and self-consciously saves the founding colony of the English on North American soil.
As the fireworks burst over the Capitol Building this evening many might recall that celebrated in the Capitol Rotunda are images of our founding fathers. In the place of honor at the top of the dome in the Capitol Rotunda we look up to see the fresco, “The Apotheosis of George Washington.” Washington sits in Roman-style glory: robed in royal purple and surrounded by allegorical figures representing victory and liberty. As the father of democracy and the new country, he has the most prominent visual place in the Capitol Dome.
But Pocahontas also makes an appearance. There she is not just once but three times. Her images are located just under the Apotheosis, significant real estate in the Rotunda. As Cecile Ganteaume, Assistant Curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian notes, “The colony is the first place in the New World that a representative form of government takes root and so that morphs into Pocahontas saving not John Smith but the birthplace of democracy.” In this interpretation, enshrined in stone in our nation’s Capitol, Pocahontas is indeed the mother of our country.
In addition to being a heroine who saves Smith and Jamestown thus helping to found our country, Pocahontas should also be viewed as a person whose story reveals the complex racial and gender dynamics present at the very founding of our country and on which our country was built. She has come to embody a dual identity: She was the daughter of a powerful chief, Powhatan. She was also the first English convert to Christianity and wife of colonist John Rolfe. As such, she was and is seen as both Native and White. Indeed, the Pocahontas Exception was named to permit her over 30,000 descendants to claim whiteness and not be classified as “colored” as the 1924 Racial Integrity Law stipulated. Only descendants of Pocahontas, even though they had “colored blood,” could claim to be white under this law.
Seen as both Native and White she had to negotiate her way through a complex maze of competing interests. As such, her identity has often been misunderstood and mischaracterized, especially by colonists and those who followed them who sought to advance English or white dominant causes and interests.
She was, like Esther from the Old Testament, a woman from a culture attacked and marginalized in history. These women’s stories have significant parallels. Both women came from groups that have come to be considered in history as oppressed and discriminated against although one could just as likely argue that Pocahontas’ people initially had little to fear from the English colonizers. However, the Pamuncky people were seen by the English as inferior, so in this way Pocahontas represented a marginalized group. (BTW, the Pamunckey were finally granted federal tribal status in 2015).
Both women learned the culture and language of those who came to dominate their people. Both women appeared in royal courts and both are credited in historical accounts with protecting their people. In the words of Professor Ciin Hatzaw of the University of Glasgow, “Esther serves as an example of the potential that lies in recognizing positions of privilege, the implications of identity, and understanding different forms of resistance….” In the cases of Esther and Pocahontas, the forms of identity and resistance were informed by gender and race as both of them, though coming from marginalized positions in their respective societies, protected their people and in so doing gave rise to nations.
Is Pocahontas the Mother of our Country? I can’t think of another female figure from this early time in our nation’s history that has garnered as much lasting attention. She deserves to be named the Mother of our Country, but not as a Disney princess or a romantic heroine. Nor, would I argue, does she deserve this accolade because she more than once saved the Virginia Company’s struggling colony through her gifts of corn, her knowledge of tobacco cultivation, her remarkable propensity for languages, and her representation of the colony in England.
She deserves the accolade because during her life she contested Euro-American racist, misogynistic ideologies. Her life story, if carefully examined, reveals how a young Native American woman, a woman of color, negotiated her way through this contested ground where Europeans and Native Americans met and where we are now only beginning to “rightly remember” her story and understand her significance.
1 The term “rightly remembering” is borrowed from James. C. Juhnke, “Rightly Remembering a Martyr Heritage,” Mennonite Life 58:3 (2003).
2 Esther 1:22, The New English Bible.
3 Pocahontas: Beyond the Myth (Full Episode) (Smithsonian documentary).
4 More information about the desparate colony can be found in Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colony Virgina (W.W. Norton & Co.: 1975).
7 Retrieved from https://www.historytoday.com/pocahontas-england, June 25, 2021.
9 Nancy Woloch, Early American Women: A Documentary History 1600-1900. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1992): 5.
10 See the account about Konwatsitiaienni in Sarah Patsall, “Recentering Indian Women in the American Revolution,” Susan Sleeper Smith, Juliana Barr, Jean M. O’Brien, Nancy Shoemaker, and Scott Manning Stevens, eds. Why You Can’t Teach United States History without American Indians. (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press at Chapel Hill): 61.
11 Woloch, op cite.
12 Retrieved from https://www.historytoday.com/pocahontas-england, June 25, 2021.
13 Woloch, 5.
17 Hatzaw, Ciin Sian Siam. “Reading Esther as a Postcolonial Feminist Icon for Asian Women in Diaspora” Open Theology, vol. 7, no. 1, 2021, pp. 001-034. https://doi.org/10.1515/opth-2020-0144