Steve Helber  /  AP
Shawn Moore places a plaque on a display of a bust of Pocahontas at the Virginia Historical Society's new exhibit in Richmond, Va. The exhibit takes a look at the traditional view of Pocahontas as well as a new view of her legacy.
updated 3/2/2007 5:53:20 PM ET 2007-03-02T22:53:20

She has the saintly glow of Joan of Arc, the enigmatic aura of the Mona Lisa and more personas than Madonna.

In her 22 years, Pocahontas left a legacy that endures in history texts, in stone relief at the U.S. Capitol Rotunda and in a beguiling parable about the settlement of Jamestown by commerce-minded explorers.

But 400 years after America's first lasting English settlement was established in a marshy peninsula on the James River, history's version of the favored daughter of a powerful Indian leader is being looked at anew, and quite critically.

Scholars say the lithe teenager often portrayed with a sexuality beyond her years was a creation of white, English males, who embellished the story of a daring but innocent child. Some Virginia Indians, too, are speaking out on what they say is the true story of Pocahontas, drawing from oral histories. They say they are reclaiming a narrative that for years was written by people who had little knowledge of their culture and low regard for their generational recollections.

It is more than righting history books, they say.

"This is more personal," said Angela L. Daniel "Silver Star," an anthropologist who co-authored a new book, "The True Story of Pocahontas: The Other Side of History," with Dr. Linwood "Little Bear" Custalow. He is a member of the Mattaponi tribe, one of eight recognized tribes in Virginia. "She was part of their family."

The traditional view of Pocahontas is on display at the Virginia Historical Society. The exhibit, which opened in February, comes amid an 18-month state commemoration of the four centuries since Jamestown's settlement in 1607. The highlight of the 400th anniversary celebration is expected to be May 11-13, "America's Anniversary Weekend" at Jamestown Settlement and Historic Jamestowne. Queen Elizabeth II is also expected to visit Virginia some time in May.

The short life of Pocahontas is presented in an almost biblical tableau in the Historical Society exhibit. In paintings, prints, sculpture and gaudy popular representations, she is shown rescuing Capt. John Smith in 1607 from an execution ordered by her father, Powhatan; warning Smith that her father was planning again to kill him; being kidnapped by settlers; converting to Christianity and marrying Englishman John Rolfe; and dying in England in 1617.

Pocahontas is shown in various stages of nudity, which was the custom for young Indian girls until puberty. But instead of deerskin aprons, also the fashion for older girls and women, she is depicted in flowing, often diaphanous covers. Her appearance ranges from teenage sprite to the European ideal of feminine beauty.

"This is what we know, and this is all we know," William M.S. Rasmussen, a curator of the exhibit, said in an interview. "And it's all the English perspective, all by men."

Pocahontas "left us no statements as to why she did what she did," he said in an e-mail.

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Rasmussen said the exhibit does not purport to be the only accounting of the subject's life and is intended to engage the visitor. "What I want the viewer to do is form an opinion about Pocahontas," he said.

Camilla Townsend, author of "Pocahontas and Powhatan Dilemma," used a variety of sources and arrived at a sharply different view.

"Indeed, the whole narrative that is so cherished in America is pornographic _ in that the girl in the story has no needs, ambitions, rages or opinions of her own," Townsend wrote in an e-mail response to a series of questions. "She exists merely to adore John Smith, white men, English culture."

Townsend raises many of the questions cited by other historians and Indian critics of the Pocahontas story.

Smith wrote about his dramatic rescue in 1624, after the deaths of Pocahontas and many of the principals who could have corroborated his story. Critics argue that his capture could have been a misinterpreted Indian ritual, such as an adoption ceremony.

Daniel said Pocahontas would not have been at the ceremony as depicted by Smith and represented in sandstone on the Capitol Rotunda.

"No children would have been allowed in that ceremony," she said.

Smith had a reputation as a braggart but was generally agreed to be fearless and was much more inclined to engage the Indians than his fellow settlers. That did not extend to his purported romance with Pocahontas, a coupling promoted in director Terrence Malick's dreamy film "The New World" and the Disney animated film that bears her name.

Daniel, Townsend and other critics contend that Pocahontas played a key role in Jamestown, though perhaps not as dramatic as Smith and his fellow settlers would have us believe. The child, Daniel writes, was the embodiment of peace the Indians sought with the newcomers.

As her father's favored daughter, she often would accompany Powhatan to Jamestown fort.

"Virtually, Pocahontas became the Powhatan symbol of peace, both as a child and as an adult," Daniel wrote.

Townsend argues much of the familiar Pocahontas story is simply feel-good history.

"The fictional version has been resistant to change because white Americans love it so much," she wrote.

Rasmussen is an unabashed fan of the unvarnished Pocahontas story. "Why would you want to renounce the legacy?" he asks.

Still, he acknowledges the Jamestown story and its principal players are part of history subject to who is recording it or interpreting it.

"The story of Pocahontas has had enormous appeal ... and the theme that runs through it is her story has been adapted to whatever agenda was on the table at the moment," Rasmussen said.

Daniel says that the book she wrote with Custalow reflects the version of Pocahontas from the Mattaponi point of view. The Mattaponi comprise one of the original core tribes of the Powhatan Chiefdom.

Because of discrimination against Indians and fears their version of events would be ridiculed, "we would not have considered telling the true story of Pocahontas," Mattaponi Chief Carl "Lone Eagle" Custalow, the brother of Linwood Custalow, wrote in a letter published in the new book. "People have not looked through our cultural lens at history. It's time to look at the other side of history, the sacred history of the Mattaponi."

He says that "The True Story of Pocahontas" is the first written history of Pocahontas by her own people and "is vastly different from the history you have been taught in school, in novels, or in movies."

The book and exhibit likely will not be the last word on Pocahontas.

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