In April, several hundred people gathered in Jamestown, Va., to watch a re-enactment of the wedding of English colonist John Rolfe and the famous Powhatan princess Pocahontas. The next weekend, Pocahontas was the subject of a different kind of portrayal as students from the Sigma Kappa sorority at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte donned face paint and costume for a Pocahontas dance.
School administrators condemned the party, and the controversy like so many others about mascots and racially themed parties ended with detractors claiming racism and defenders harmless fun.
A wife, ambassador and spy, the real Pocahontas was no stranger to changing costumes and playing roles. What might she have said about our current controversy over costumes and mascots?
To answer that question, we have to forget what we think we know. Like so much in American history, the story of Pocahontas is buried in lore, lies and exaggeration. Pocahontas never rescued any smitten Englishmen from execution, as legend has it. The real Pocahontas was far less sentimental and far more complex. Kidnapped by the English in 1613, she married Rolfe as part of a peace treaty between her father and the newcomers. It was Americas first interracial marriage and its first celebrity one but it came to a sudden end when Pocahontas died on a visit to England.
In the decades after, settlers myths about Pocahontas crowded out Powhatan traditions. In the early United States, young women (and sometimes men) claimed descent from Pocahontas as a way of putting on airs. She was, after all, a princess. Theater audiences likewise swooned at portrayals of her fictional rescue of white newcomers. Centuries later Disney capitalized on such images with an animated feature complete with talking animals and a happy ending.
By playing Pocahontas at a party, the sisters of Sigma Kappa were emphasizing yet another image: Pocahontas as sex symbol, a wild child in touch with her inner savage.
Many apologists for Indian costumes and mascots have defended their positive associations. For example, Dan Snyder, the owner of the Washington Redskins, recently claimed that his teams mascot represents the strength, courage, pride and respect that guide Native Americans. Echoing Snyder, posters on Total Sorority Move, a popular blog, defended the Pocahontas dance as a tribute to a beloved cartoon.
But are well-meaning stereotypes really so different from bad ones? Native American symbols and images have acquired a lot of meaning for the American public over the centuries. Yet playing Indian, even with the best of intentions, can end up making Native Americans seem one-dimensional, and in this respect positive images start to resemble negative ones.
The recent re-enactment at Jamestown, which celebrated the 400-year anniversary of the wedding, has much to teach us about one-dimensional images. A joint production, it had input from leading archaeologists as well as members of the Pamunkey tribe, a Powhatan group from which Pocahontas is descended. Not surprisingly, the Pocahontas of the re-enactment, portrayed by Wendy Taylor, a tribal member, was very different from the one found in cartoons or at parties. Taylor played the part with diplomatic reserve, more Kate Middleton than Kim Kardashian. This fits the real Pocahontas. As a princess who married a commoner and an Indian who lived in London, she understood the complexity of identity and spent years studying other places and cultures, the better to advocate for her people.
A collaboration between science and tribal history, the re-enactment offered another way to play Pocahontas, one that recognizes her time, place and complexity. Theres still a lot we dont know about the real Pocahontas and a lot we will never know, but combining the latest research in archaeology with tribal traditions is one way to get beyond stereotypical images. Its also a way to recognize the living presence of her people, who never disappeared, despite all the myths that came to surround their most famous ancestor.
Jeffrey Glover is an English professor at Loyola University in Chicago and the author of a recent book about Pocahontas.