Pocahontas: Medicine Woman, Spy, Entrepreneur, Diplomat

Pocahontas: Medicine Woman, Spy, Entrepreneur, Diplomat

by Paula Gunn Allen

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In striking counterpoint to the conventional account, Pocahontas is a bold biography that tells the extraordinary story of the beloved Indian maiden from a Native American perspective. Dr. Paula Gunn Allen, the acknowledged founder of Native American literary studies, draws on sources often overlooked by Western historians and offers remarkable new


In striking counterpoint to the conventional account, Pocahontas is a bold biography that tells the extraordinary story of the beloved Indian maiden from a Native American perspective. Dr. Paula Gunn Allen, the acknowledged founder of Native American literary studies, draws on sources often overlooked by Western historians and offers remarkable new insights into the adventurous life and sacred role of this foremost American heroine. Gunn Allen reveals why so many have revered Pocahontas as the female counterpart to the father of our nation, George Washington.

Editorial Reviews

Carl Rollyson
“Nothing less than a watershed event in the historiography of the Americas.”
Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Allen is a pathfinder.”
Wall Street Journal
[In] Ms. Allen’s spirited revision, [she] insists that Pocahontas cannot be understood except within an Algonquin Indian context.
Oakland Tribune
“Paula Gunn Allen, a pioneer of Native American literary studies, tells Pocahontas’ story from the Indian perspective.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“This is not your typical biography. It couldn’t be.”
Publishers Weekly
In what is presented as the first study of its kind by an American Indian scholar, Allen (The Sacred Hoop) offers a corrective to the romantic story of Pocahontas told initially by Capt. John Smith of the Virginia Company and most recently by Disney Studios. Euro-American historical accounts of Pocahontas's brief life, asserts Allen, typically depict her as a lovelorn and tragic character (she died in 1617 in the aptly named river port of Gravesend, England, at the age of 20 or 21). Allen's Pocahontas, by contrast, is a real visionary, a prodigiously gifted young woman fervently devoted to the spiritual traditions of her people: a loose-knit group of Algonquin tribes known as the Powhatan Alliance, or Tsenacommacah. When the English colonists who began establishing Jamestown in 1607 invaded the Tsenacommacah, Pocahontas immediately identified it as the fulfillment of a prophecy that foretold the end of their world and the beginning of a new one, argues Allen. It was "world change time," she writes, and Pocahontas (also called Matoaka, Amonute and finally Lady Rebecca Rolfe) was nothing if not mutable-as implied by the book's subtitle. Still, notwithstanding Pocahontas's significant role in American history, Allen's claims that Pocahontas "set in motion a chain of events that would," among other things, "liberate the starving and miserable peoples of Europe and beyond" can seem overstated. More persuasive are Allen's comments about the cultural similarities between the English and Algonquin and the idea that each group changed the other. When casting Pocahontas as "the embodiment of this dual cultural transformation," her role, and the book, are at their clearest, and are made manifest by Allen's often lyrical and powerful writing. (On sale Oct. 7) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Allen (English, emerita, UCLA) flaunts her Native American heritage in order to differentiate her "biography" of Pocahontas from those written by nonnatives. It is the native perspective that apparently gives her license to construct an image of Pocahontas as a "shaman-priestess, sorcerer, adept of high degree" without any cited evidence, unless one accepts a supposed probability that she was a member of the Midewewin (a secret society of medicine men and women). Allen treats this probability as fact and uses it as the book's lynchpin, which, in turn, allows her to sprinkle her feminist Native American perspective liberally throughout. Despite Allen's claims, this native perspective is suspect at best since she is of Laguna Pueblo/Metis and Sioux descent, while Pocahontas was a Powhatan and thus Algonquin. This book is not recommended; libraries needing authoritative biographical information on Native American women, including Pocahontas, should instead purchase the outstanding anthology Sifters: Native American Women's Lives, edited by Theda Perdue.-John Burch, Campbellsville Univ. Lib., KY Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.83(d)
Age Range:
15 Years

Read an Excerpt

Medicine Woman, Spy, Entrepreneur, Diplomat

Chapter One

Apowa / Dream-Vision

"This is not a land for gods," said the buffalo man. But it was not the buffalo man talking anymore ... it was the fire speaking, the crackling and the burning of the flame itself that spoke to Shadow in the dark place under the earth.

"This land was brought up from the depths of the ocean by a diver," said the fire. "It was spun from its own substance by a spider. It was shat by a raven. It is the bones of a fallen father, whose bones are mountains, whose eyes are lakes."

"This is the land of dreams and fire," said the flame.
-- Neil Gaiman

Mystery, not history, was the bread of life.
-- Richard Noll

According to Indigenous Science, everything that exists is held within the great cycle of time, and thus there exist ceremonies that acknowledge and assist in its renewal.
-- F. David Peat

oo-maa haa'a / once upon a time

That was the time that Yellow Woman was taken by Whirlwind Manito, and he took her to another place far beyond the great waters. She was standing in the south. In the south she was standing. First Whirlwind man came from the south, and then he came from the east, then he came from the east another time. That was when Yellow Woman knew that it was time. She was standing in the south, and Southwind Woman was talking to her.

Look here, Southwind Woman said. Yellow Woman. You should go to the south a little ways. You should find the one who will take you across the great water. That's the one who comes on a seabird with great white wings. The one that moves by my breath, or the breath of one of my sisters.

Yellow Woman waited. She was standing there in the south. In the south she was waiting. Then the wind came from the south, and she stood. I will not go to the water just yet, she said. Later, when the dawn comes. When the north wind comes to stay. When Ice Manito, Windigo, comes. Then maybe I will go.

Then Yellow Woman. She was very young, and she got very tired of waiting. But it was the way of her people, and her aunts kept her heart strong. They gave her many dances to learn, and many chants to sing. They helped her make the steps and the calls with her throat that would carry into the world of the manito. She went out every day. She went here and she went other places. And the time passed until the ice held the world still and silent, and she heard the wind saying. Now, Yellow Woman. This time.

She went back to where the old women were. Where the clan mothers and the aunts were. And they dressed her and put the down of white winter birds in her hair. They painted the parting of her hair red. Her face they painted the color red, pocoon, and her hands they made patterns on, and on her ankles they made other patterns.

Yellow Woman went among the elders, among all the holy people, even some of the wild men who frightened her. But she looked down or straight ahead. She remembered the chants and the steps of the dance.

They were singing. They were talking. In that Big House, quioccosan. That holy House, quioccosan. The elders, the matchacómoco, were talking. They were honoring Fire with tobacco, apook. Generous hands gave apook. They sang. The ones who sang that way sang. Everyone was standing. There in the Great House, quioccosan. We honor you, Fire Man. We honor you Fire Woman. It is truth that is spoken here. It is truth that is done here. Thank you.

The other women. Her sisters. Red woman. Black/Dark Blue Woman. White Woman. Standing in their places. They stood in the west. They stood in the east. They stepped this way. The stepped another way. They were standing. They were singing. It was a holy song they were singing. They were crying. That the supernaturals, manito, would hear them. That the holiest, manitt, would hear them. That they were standing in truth, oo-maa'ha'a. The voices rising.

Yellow woman raising her voice. In the highest tremolo she was singing. She was singing. She was walking. She threw herself down. Down she threw herself. On the body of the stranger. On his body she fell. Singing in the highest tremolo.

I will take this one and guide him.

That's what I will do.

It is the truth I speak

Had Pocahontas been Laguna Pueblo and had she been a yellow corn woman and so part of the old cycle about the supernatural sisters -- red corn woman, yellow corn woman, blue/black corn woman, white corn woman -- this is how her story might have been told, in translation. As she was not Laguna Pueblo of the Keres Nation but Pamunkey, of the Powhatan Alliance, her story would have been told traditionally in the words and cadences of her people. Some of the words current among the people of the tsenacommacah I've added to this Keresan-based version. Laguna is not Werowocomoco, the town where Pocahontas was raised, and Powhatan was her language, not Keres. But then, modern Virginia bears little resemblance to the tsenacommacah she knew, and no one there spoke modern American English. She was of a time best thought of as world renewal time, world change time, or world transformation time; it's clear that this is so. The world we know bears only a marginal resemblance to the one she knew.

Here in This Sacred Place I Stand

As the spring equinox approached, Pocahontas knew it was time for her apowa, or Dream-Vision; it was several years before Captain John Smith even set foot on American soil, establishing with his Virginia Company the settlement at Jamestown. At midmorning she quietly stepped out of the longhouse where she lived -- a half-cylindrical structure made of bark and animal skins slashed to wooden frames ...

Medicine Woman, Spy, Entrepreneur, Diplomat
. Copyright © by Paula Gunn Allen. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

What People are saying about this

Carl Rollyson
“Nothing less than a watershed event in the historiography of the Americas.”

Meet the Author

Paula Gunn Allen, Ph.D., is an American of Laguna Pueblo/Metis descent and Professor Emerita of English and American Indian Studies at UCLA. The author of many books, including the landmark title, The Sacred Hoop, she is credited as the founder of the field of Native American literary studies. She received a fellowship from the Ford Foundation-National Research Council to study the oral tradition in Native American literature, a writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and has also been an Associate Fellow at the Stanford Humanities Institute. She has been honored with the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, the Native American Prize for Literature, and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writer's Circle of the Americas. She lives in Fort Bragg, California.

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