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Inspired by the latest discussion of the sick Pocahontas mythology

March 8, 2011

I was going to put this on my new Tumblr, but it bloated. And has continued to bloat. (Surprise! *wry smile*)

The excellent post there that got me going, reblogged with a couple of comments: THE POCAHONTAS MYTH.

Another longer one I decided to crosspost here: John Chapman’s Baptism of Pocahontas.

Enough background. 😉

Other “Powhatan Confederacy” women we don’t hear much about these days, surprise surprise:

Cockacoeske (the “Queen of Pamunckey”)

Queen Betty (Pamunkey chief)

Queen Anne (Pamunkey chief)

Yes, they had three female mamanatowick in a row. That doesn’t make for good wétiko mythology, in any number of ways.

Note that only in the first case was her real name deemed important enough to record. But, then, the colonists couldn’t even keep their sachems (peace chiefs), werowances (war chiefs), and mamanatowicks (confederation’s principal sachem) straight, much less exactly whch groups they were representing. (It’s not even entirely clear which of these offices “Betty” and “Anne” held.) Never mind weroansquas, etc; the female form of mamanatowick and was not recorded, to my knowledge. The English frequently absolutely refused to deal with female leaders, and “[i]n 1998, the Rappahannocks elected the first woman Chief, G. Anne Richardson, to lead a Tribe in Virginia since the 1700s”#; she’s also the fourth generation in her family to hold the job.

Whatever the official title, they are still usually referred to as “emperors”, FFS, with the women’s councils (and pretty much any other women seen with them) assumed to have been their harems. For real.

From Powhatan as Emperor (emphasis mine):

Early modern English legal culture disposed imperialists to find individuals in possession of territory they wished to claim. Explaining Native American governance and land tenure in terms of English analogies was often a convenient way to make them intelligible to other English-speakers and to downplay inconvenient cultural and political difference. For English men of war like Smith, the honorable occupation for soldiers was to earn kingdoms in legitimate warfare. Thus, the image of Powhatan as an emperor would seem to have helped make English fantasies of domination and possession in the region legitimate and honorable. This analogy was further emphasized in the text surrounding the portrait of Pocahontas produced in London in 1616. The Latin text identifies her as the daughter of “Emperor” Powhatan.

Then there’s the just plain universalism and failure of imagination that things could be any different from what you’re used to.

That author seems to have a good point about some further purposes of the harem imagery–besides its just being based in the very different legal and social status of English and other European women at that time, and very different approaches to gender and sexuality in general:

Powhatan’s royal status is emphasized through specific visual analogues to English royal regalia, such as the feathered bonnet as crown, the platform as throne, the pipe evoking a scepter, the assemblage of people as courtiers, and so on. These features draw on the traditional iconography of Western royal portraiture. Yet, in contrast to European portraits of monarchs, which represent these icons with great consistency and majesty, Powhatan’s signs of royal privilege are represented as both primitive and merely analogous—not the things themselves, but crude copies or anticipations.

The crude, imitative regalia suggest a corresponding feebleness in his governance and leaves his imperial legitimacy open to question. Powhatan’s regal entourage heightens this impression. None display the grandeur and wealth conventional among European portraits of monarchs in royal majesty. A close look at Powhatan’s portrait suggests that Powhatan is closely allied to eastern royalty such as Turkish sultans. The attendants, either women or androgynous figures, underscore the sexual license and effeminacy of Powhatan’s court and Powhatan’s elevated seat suggests his tyrannical sway over his subjects. Early seventeenth-century Englishmen would associate these regal characteristics with recognizable Ottoman models of tyranny, absolutism, and effeminacy. In light of the Turkish court culture, the pointedly foregrounded women also suggest the harem. The Turkish sultan’s seraglio became for many Englishmen a fascinating and enduring trope of imperial English chastity as well as the colonial others’ sexual openness.

Yeah, that helps put some things I’d noticed about representations into perspective. And provides another excuse for saving people from themselves through conquest.

Notice the creepy and hateful gender and sexuality attitudes the whole shebang depends on, too. Yet again, I feel like I need a bath. Especially thinking about how this kind of thing continues to be used to justify knocking whole other groups of people over the heads and stealing their toys.

So, what did a sachem actually do? (Again, emphasis mine.)

Sachem, a term drawn from Algonkin speakers of the Northeast. Although English colonists in New England applied the term to most Indian leaders, the term truly applied to hereditary civil leaders as opposed to war leaders who acquired their status through prowess in combat. Much of a sachem’s leadership depended on establishing consensus among the members of his village. Most sachems were men, but there are examples in New England history of women with the title.

So, a lot more diplomacy and catherding than monarchical absolute power. BTW, for “hereditary civil leader”, read “members of certain matrilineages were eligible for election to certain offices”. And, like among the Haudenosaunee AFAICT, could be impeached.

Among their coastal Algonquian cousins:

The Wampanoag were organized into a confederation, where a head sachem, or political leader, presided over a number of other sachems. The English often referred to the sachem as “king,” a title that misled more than it clarified since the position of a sachem differed in many ways from that of a king. Sachems were bound to consult not only their own councilors within their tribe but also any of the “petty sachems,” or people of influence, in the region.[6] They were also responsible for arranging trade privileges as well as protecting their allies in exchange for material tribute.[7] Both women and men could hold the position of sachem, and women were sometimes chosen over close male relatives.[8] …  These women gained power because their matrilineal clans held sway over large plots of land and they themselves had accrued enough status and power—not because they were the widows of former sachems.

Shades of the official story about Cockacoeske…


It is possible that there were more female sachems than were noted in the records. Ethnohistorians have tended to consider all Indian leaders male unless otherwise noted. It is difficult to determine gender from the names English colonists transcribed centuries ago

Hmm, could language loss also have something to do with this?

Sometimes I find this stuff darkly funny, sometimes it’s just extremely depressing–and sometimes both.

BTW, if you want a seriously muddled morass of mythology, try Helen Rountree’s The Powhatan Indians of Virginia: Their Traditional Culture. I haven’t even tried to read any of her other work after wading through this one. It’s another case, very similar to Perdue’s Cherokee Women, in which the author does seem to mean well–but, if one keeps taking a lot of the primary sources at face value (Adair and his Lost Tribes obsession, anyone?!, never mind De Soto et al.), pretty soon the result does not even make any internal sense. At first, I wondered if it was just me being tired or something, but, yeah, a lot of it just makes no sense in weirdly circular and contradictory ways. It doesn’t even sound like you’re reading about real people, probably because you’re not.

When you have to do a lot of digging for information to try to piece together in ways that stand up to a modicum of critical thinking, best to keep an eye out for ingrained ideology and mythology. None of us is proof against that one.

It’s easy to see the pitfalls of ideology when we examine the dogmatism of our enemies. But unless ideology is simply what we call the ideas of those with whom we disagree, we should be able to critique it in ourselves as well.

Spot on, CrimethInc.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 18, 2012 3:10 pm

    Nice blog.

    Just one thing. Powhatan was not a “sachem”. That is a word and office found from places far to the north of Virginia. In fact, certain historical events make it likely that Powhatan was indeed influenced by Europe before the English came and did desire a more authoritative position.

    Have you ever hear the story of Don Luis?

    In brief, the Spanish decided to try and send missionaries to the Chesapeake region. These Jesuits did travel there and made contact with the locals. Establishing a mission called Ajjacaan, and sending a few of the young men for catholic education. Don Luis, as the spanish called him, was one of them. He traveled to Mexico, and saw the recent ruined achievements of the Aztecs. He traveled to Spain itself and saw how the Spanish court operated. Then he traveled back to virginia. Where, he turned on the unmilitarized missionaries and had them killed.

    The Spanish would return on a punitive raid some years latter. Fear of the Spanish returning in force, and a desire for European metal goods animated Powhatan Wahunsenecaw to try and ally with the English. He seemed to know that they and the Spanish were long time foes.

    No one knows if Don Luis was Wahunsenecaw or Opechannanough or some third person.

    What we can know from this story is that the Powhatan were not totally uninfluenced by the outside world before the English came in 1607. So the idea that Powhatan may have styled himself as more of an autocrat along the lines of a Monteczuma or King Ferdinand of Spain is not at all impossible.

    You don’t have to take my word for that.

  2. urocyon permalink*
    July 27, 2012 12:20 am

    Good point about sachem being a term from further north, while Wahunsenacaw was a weroance and then mamanatowick. AFAICT, the offices are similar enough that it makes sense to use some generalization there, though they’re not the same.

    I only found out about the Spanish attempt at setting themselves up at the mouth of the Chesapeake a few years ago, actually. But, Virginia history as it usually presented… *sigh* I’d like to do more reading on that, but it does make total sense that this would have helped make forming alliances with the English a few decades later look more appealing.

    Though, from what I recall reading, the Spanish idea of basically installing a puppet ruler failed partly because they were assuming a European-style inherited patrilineal pattern of leadership positions, when that was not the way things worked; Don Luis was never eligible to take over from his father, at all. That would maybe argue against the idea that he could have been Wahunsenecaw or Opechancanough–unless he was eligible for selection to another lineage position. It is an intriguing possibility.

    But, yeah, there was certainly a lot more exposure to Europeans and some of their ways of running things than is generally acknowledged, by the time even the last batch of Roanoke colonists showed up. It’s possible that some political leaders got ideas from that. (However unpopular one might expect a more autocratic approach to be, if people were not used to that.) It’s also possible that Wahunsenacaw was putting on an act and doing some English leg-pulling, based on experience of dealing with Spaniards. It wouldn’t be the first or last time that kind of clowning got taken a little too seriously. 🙂

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