The Pocahontas Perplex

Peoples´ attitudes towards women and how they reflect their philosophy of life

Essay 2001 4 Pages

American Studies - Culture and Applied Geography


Peoples" attitudes towards women and how they reflect their philosophy of life For a long time in European literature there has been the tale of a white man going to a foreign, often exotic country where he faces some kind of trouble or danger. Before losing his life he is rescued by a native woman who falls in love with him and often follows him to his country, adopting his way of life. The best known version of this tale is the national myth of Pocahontas and John Smith, effecting American imagination to a great extent1. However, even before Pocahontas showed up Europeans expressed their vision of Indian women as split characters, half evil and half good, in what Rayna Green calls the Pocahontas Perplex2. By contrasting Native American and European visions of women this essay claims that the attitude towards Indian women reflects the Native American as well as the European philosophy of life. On the one hand we have a holistic "shame culture", i.e. based on honor, duty and collaboration, and on the other hand a dualistic "guilt culture" based on property, status and material possessions.

The political importance of women in the League of the Iroquois is a model Native American perception of Indian women. In this society the basic unit of government is the "hearth", comprising a mother and children. Larger units are made up of an otiianer, a word which itself refers to female heirs. Several of these otiianers constitute a clan. In short, the whole society is based on matrilineal descent, with women as heads of political groups responsible for appointing male delegates.3 This constitutes a kind of holistic approach to women's importance for the Iroquois, including the element of reciprocity by

acknowledging their importance and honoring them. And this is just one of many examples of women's significance to be found among the various Indian tribes.

Today Pocahontas, the Indian Princess, provides us with a model for Indian-White relations and for a national understanding of Indian women. However, it was not until the colonies headed towards independence that the Pocahontas we know today has come into existence. As early as 1575 the Indian Queen was used as a symbol for the New World. This bare-breasted Amazonian Native American Queen reigned until 1765. She was very much bound up with nature, wearing leaves, feathers and animal skins. Her character was depicted rather aggressive and militant for she was armed and did not hesitate to use her weapons. There was a heavily dualistic notion present in this Mother-Goddess, for she was nurturing but also very dangerous at times. After a reign of about 190 years she was to be replaced by her daughter, the Indian Princess. She was more American, i.e. distinctly Caucasian with only a lightly tinted skin, and she was less barbarous. Instead of defeating her enemies herself she had male warriors at her service to do so4. Therefore, one could conclude she only comprised within her the positive features of her mother, although there was an inherent potential for evil in her being familiar with medicine (inherent because she used her knowledge only as a healer). At a time when real Indian women suddenly appeared from nowhere, the negative features not living on in the Princess had to be placed somewhere, and this is exactly the time the Indian Squaw appeared as a controlling metaphor for the first time, thus creating the Pocahontas Perplex. Both of these images are defined by their relationship with male figures. The Princess is the one who helps the white man, thus turning her back on her own people. She is a civilized Indian which is clearly visible in pictures showing a woman with a slightly lighter skin color than her fellow Indians. She also is an object of lust for the white man, but at the same time she is a sacrosanct figure which absolutely has to keep an exotic distance or die. The message behind this description is that to be good the Indian woman “must defy her own people, exile herself from them, become white, and perhaps suffer death.5 ”. To fill the gap left by the Princess, her darker twin, the Indian Squaw, has “to take the rap”. Even her outer appearance makes her seem less civilized because of her skin color and often her somehow primitive features. She shares all the vices attributed to Indian men, i.e. drinking, stealing, being stupid, etc., and is hardly more than an economic and sexual convenience to do what white men want for money or lust. In that way she preserves the sacredness of her sister. Paradoxically, no one would ever hesitate to sacrifice the Squaw for the progress of the civilization represented by the Princess. In short, unlike the Native American perspective, Europeans seem incapable of viewing one woman as comprising two contradictory character traits. They appear to be constrained to oppose a positive and a negative version in order to arrive at a plausible world view. Moreover they are far from showing any respect to women unless they are well-disposed towards them, and there is not the least sign of any kind of reciprocity.

Along the same line of thought, a lot of different aspects of both European and Native American culture could be quoted in order to prove that a dualistic and a holistic world view, respectively, is reflected in every facet of their lives. It is certainly not limited to gender, but reaches into economics, agriculture and other areas of life. A very important question would be in how far the arguments could be backed up by creation stories of various tribes in contrast to the Christian belief. For example in the creation story of the

Iroquois6 the left-handed twin is not judged wrong, nor is the right-handed twin considered right. Accepting that there are two ways of the world in everyone which make up a whole, they simply called them "right" and "left". Christianity, on the other hand, makes a clear-cut distinction between good and evil. It is impossible to belong to both sides at the same time. An examination of whether or not the often cited images of the "Noble Redman" and the "Red Savage" can be seen as simply analogous to the Indian Princess and the Indian Squaw would also be a rather intriguing task.


1 Early (pre-Pocahontas) examples for the theme include the old Scottish ballad "Young Beichan"; Pocahontas was featured in many American poems and plays, like for example La Belle Sauvage (1808), and The Settlers of Virginia (1827).

2 Rayna Green, "The Pocahontas Perplex. The Image of Indian Women in American Culture." in: Susan Lobo and Steve Talbot, Native American Voices. A Reader. Second Edition. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall 2001. p. 203-211.

3 Donald A.Grinde Jr. and Bruce Johansen, „Perceptions of America's Native Democracies: The Societies Colonial Americans Observed." in: Susan Lobo and Steve Talbot, Native American Voices. A Reader. Second Edition. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall 2001. p. 87.

4 Miss Liberty is often believed to be some kind of a metamorphed sister of the Indian Princess.

5 Rayna Green, “The Pocahontas Perplex. The Image of Indian Women in American Culture.” in: Susan Lobo and Steve Talbot, Native American Voices. A Reader. Second Edition. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall 2001. p. 206.

6 f.ex. "Major Problems in American Indian History" ... p. 26.


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University of Tubingen – Amerikanistik
Pocahontas Perplex Peoples´




Title: The Pocahontas Perplex