Malinche, Pocahontas, and Sacagawea: Indian Women as Cultural Intermediaries and National Symbols

Malinche, Pocahontas, and Sacagawea: Indian Women as Cultural Intermediaries and National Symbols

by Rebecca Kay Jager Ph.D.

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The first Europeans to arrive in North America’s various regions relied on Native women to help them navigate unfamiliar customs and places. This study of three well-known and legendary female cultural intermediaries, Malinche, Pocahontas, and Sacagawea, examines their initial contact with Euro-Americans, their negotiation of multinational frontiers, and their symbolic representation over time.

Well before their first contact with Europeans or Anglo-Americans, the three women’s societies of origin—the Aztecs of Central Mexico (Malinche), the Powhatans of the mid-Atlantic coast (Pocahontas), and the Shoshones of the northern Rocky Mountains (Sacagawea)—were already dealing with complex ethnic tensions and social change. Using wit and diplomacy learned in their Native cultures and often assigned to women, all three individuals hoped to benefit their own communities by engaging with the new arrivals. But as historian Rebecca Kay Jager points out, Europeans and white Americans misunderstood female expertise in diplomacy and interpreted indigenous women’s cooperation as proof of their attraction to Euro-American men and culture. This confusion has created a historical misrepresentation of Malinche, Pocahontas, and Sacagawea as gracious Indian princesses, giving far too little credit to their skills as intermediaries.

Examining their initial contact with Europeans and their work on multinational frontiers, Jager removes these three famous icons from the realm of mythology and cultural fantasy and situates each woman’s behavior in her own cultural context. Drawing on history, anthropology, ethnohistory, and oral tradition, Jager demonstrates their shrewd use of diplomacy and fulfillment of social roles and responsibilities in pursuit of their communities’ future advantage.

Jager then goes on to delineate the symbolic roles that Malinche, Pocahontas, and Sacagawea came to play in national creation stories. Mexico and the United States have molded their legends to justify European colonization and condemn it, to explain Indian defeat and celebrate indigenous prehistory. After hundreds of years, Malinche, Pocahontas and Sacagawea are still relevant. They are the symbolic mothers of the Americas, but more than that, they fulfilled crucial roles in times of pivotal and enduring historical change. Understanding their stories brings us closer to understanding our own histories.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806153599
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 10/20/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 368
File size: 13 MB
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About the Author

Rebecca K. Jager, who holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of New Mexico, is an independent scholar whose research focuses on the interaction between gender and race in U.S. history.

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Malinche, Pocahontas, and Sacagawea

Indian Women as Cultural Intermediaries and National Symbols

By Rebecca K. Jager


Copyright © 2015 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5359-9



Incoming Europeans encountered complex multinational landscapes in the Americas. Indigenous societies had unique worldviews and their own intentions for the future. European foreigners presented both challenges and opportunities to Indian groups. As cultural intermediaries Malinche, Pocahontas, and Sacagawea navigated an intricate set of Native circumstances in their respective regions, and they acted according to their own epistemologies and cultural expectations. These were flesh-and-blood women with responsibilities to their families and communities as they negotiated a revolution within their Native world.

An examination of precolonial indigenous conditions will provide a Native context for the dramatic events of initial contact. This chapter focuses on the Native worldviews that informed the decisions made by Malinche, Pocahontas, and Sacagawea. Early colonizers and nationalists portrayed the women as Indian princesses who were smitten with the newcomers and enamored with non-Indian cultures. Contemporary scholars cast them as victims, slaves to profit-seeking or lecherous European men. These portrayals emanate from non-Indian perspectives; they neglect Native context and deny the considerable influence these women wielded on both sides of the cultural divide.

Malinche, Pocahontas, and Sacagawea made critical decisions to facilitate European expansion. Analysis of their indigenous world offers insight into their reasoning and highlights their Native gender obligations. However, their experiences may not have been analogous to the experiences of other Native women in their time and place because Malinche, Pocahontas, and Sacagawea were selected as representatives during extraordinarily dangerous and transformative events. They were energetic and influential intermediaries who impacted the future of their world. The brief histories that follow reveal the cultural complexities of diverse indigenous societies, providing meaning to Indian actions and exposing gendered social organization.


Along the Gulf of Mexico, in the forested lands of Veracruz and Tabasco, ruins of an ancient civilization date back to 500 B.C. Among artifacts that have been uncovered is evidence of ceremonial centers and artistic expression, as well as the oldest calendar inscription ever found. The material remains hint at the Olmecs' conception of time and religion. This ancient culture influenced waves of immigrants who poured into central Mexico from the northern shores of the Pacific and dispersed over the lush landscape. Migrating tribes and chiefdoms mixed with one another, exchanging ideas and technologies. Over time, dynamic interactions (intermarriages, alliances, conquests, and empires) produced a succession of civilizations that arose and collapsed in turn.

Centuries before the rise of the Aztec Empire, wandering nomads consolidated into communities and constructed the sacred cities of Tikal, Uaxactun, Copan, and Palenque in the jungles of Central America. Their most impressive urban center was Teotihuacan in the Valley of Mexico. It was the largest city in Mesoamerica during the height of its existence around A.D. 450. Scholars disagree on who created this expansive city that covered eleven square miles and was home to 100,000–150,000 people. The population was most likely multiethnic and culturally complex. Teotihuacan reached its apex at about the time of the Roman Empire, in the fifth and sixth centuries, commanding resources from Guatemala to Durango. The civilization entered a period of decline in the eighth and ninth centuries as other seats of power arose. Experts disagree on a specific cause for its decline, but scarce resources, internal unrest, increased warfare, ecological devastation, and a continuous influx of northern immigrants likely all led to its disintegration.

The name Teotihuacan translates from Nahuatl to mean the "place of the gods." A Mexica creation story recorded in the mid-1500s by Spanish friars endows Teotihuacan with a mythological significance as the place where their world first took shape. The mysterious city was decorated with ornate palaces, sculptures, and frescos that illustrated a profound sense of time and history. Later groups elaborated on the cultural representations that decorated the ancient buildings. Their symbolic imagery appears in the codices of various Nahua groups both before and after the Spanish conquest. The abandoned pyramids and plazas of Teotihuacan were viewed with awe by generations of Mesoamericans who absorbed cultural meaning from the ancient ruins scattered across central Mexico.

Central Mexico underwent a cultural renascence with the ascendance of Toltec society during the tenth century. The Toltecs adopted cultural traditions they found in the central basin and combined them with the northern traditions they carried with them as they journeyed south. Mesoamerican groups considered the Toltec civilization to be extraordinarily accomplished, yet little is archaeologically known about the Toltecs. Most of what we do know is from the sixteenth century, when Nahua peoples narrated their histories to colonizing Spaniards. In the 1400s Mexica rulers linked their heritage to Toltec ancestry in order to legitimize their own supremacy over the Valley. Scholars have pieced together characteristics of Toltec lifeways from later groups (such as the Mexicas) who revered and absorbed particular aspects of a Toltec worldview.

The Toltecs migrated into the Valley of Mexico during the late ninth century and settled in the city of Tula (forty miles north of Teotihuacan). Tula would have been at its height during the tenth through twelfth centuries and grew to encompass 30,000–40,000 people. It, too, was a culturally diverse environment in which factional disputes arose. According to later Nahua informants, Toltec mythology expressed a rivalry between Quetzalcoatl (the founder of Tula who had taken the name of a prominent deity) and Tezcatlipoca (the leader of a warrior faction who believed in human sacrifice). Increased tensions forced Quetzalcoatl to leave; he set out across the water toward the east, and thus began Toltec decline.

The cultural and artistic remains of Toltec civilization revealed an aristocratic warrior society that sought wealth and power through the conquest of outlying towns, which were then forced to pay tribute. Archeologists have yet to determine the extent of Toltec domination. They have speculated that a sustained drought most likely initiated the downfall of the empire and the violent destruction of Tula in the 1300s. Toltec survivors dispersed and were absorbed by ethnically diverse communities throughout the central basin. The population of the Valley continued to increase during the fourteenth century, and new arrivals assimilated into an amalgamation of cultures. Competition over resources and power brought the emergence of city-states, administrative centers, and warrior cultures. The city-states were culturally related, yet completely independent from one another. These complex communities existed in reluctant cooperation, with occasional violent outbursts, until the rise of the Aztec Empire.

The Mexicas were the last of the migrating peoples to arrive from the north. They entered the Valley in the early 1300s as the Toltec Empire was dissolving. The Mexicas had difficulty assimilating into the flourishing city-states. The latecomers were considered undesirables who lacked culture, and they were violently rejected. According to surviving Mexica codices, they founded their own city of Tenochtitlán on an island in Lake Texcoco in 1325. Once settled, they, too, absorbed relevant cultural antecedents from the nearby ancient ruins and established roots in central Mexico. The Toltecs' warrior culture was particularly influential in the rise of the Aztec Empire. Mexicas adopted a Toltec god of war (Huitzilopochtli), followed the Toltec warrior path, and took the Toltec ethos of conquest, tribute, and human sacrifice to remarkable new heights during the fifteenth century.

Mexica creation stories expressed their origin, their migration experience, and their eventual dominance over the Valley, often borrowing from the cultural representations illustrated in the ruins of Teotihuacan and Tula. Richard Townsend has characterized the rise of Tenochtitlán as "a renascence of the metropolitan culture that had been a legacy of the central highlands since Teotihuacan and Tula. The Mexicas cultivated a strong cultural and historical affinity with the ancient Toltecs, whom they identified with the idealized past." The Mexicas justified their ascendance over the Valley by claiming descent from the admired civilization of ancient Mexico. This proved an effective strategy as they built their own sprawling empire in Mesoamerica.

Within a century this once-destitute tribe had achieved an expansive yet tenuous dominance over the Valley, reaching its zenith of power on the eve of Spanish arrival. Its island–capital city was a place of such splendor that Spanish conquistadors gasped in astonishment. Spaniards witnessed the constant bustle of more than 250,000 people participating in the various activities of Tenochtitlán. The impressive urban center was alive with fiestas, sacrifices, military training maneuvers, diplomatic negotiations, and the constant arrival and departure of warriors. Spaniards marveled at the size and productivity of the Tlatelolco market, which was visited daily by more than twenty thousand patrons. The city's magnificent palaces, temples, frescos, and botanical and zoological gardens also impressed the European invaders.

Dominican friar Diego Durán recorded Nahua histories of preconquest Mexico, beginning in the mid-sixteenth century. His Nahua informants claimed that their Mexica ancestors emerged from the earth at the moment of creation. In the twelfth century the tribe left from an ancestral homeland in the north and began their migration into the Valley of Mexico. They called this mysterious ancestral homeland Aztlán, which translates as "whiteness." The term Aztec became the unsatisfactory name for all of the diverse groups under Mexica domination at the time of the Spanish conquest.

According to anthropologist and historian Miguel León-Portilla, Mexica wealth and supremacy emerged during the reign of Itzcoatl, who ruled between 1428 and 1440. The real power, however, came from behind the throne; Itzcoatl's nephew, Tlacael, was a royal counselor and a shrewd political strategist. Tlacael instituted a number of reforms in the tribe's political, religious, social, and economic structures to justify Mexica authority over the Valley. He reconfigured the judicial system, the army, the royal court, and the system of trade, creating an effective administrative machine that could be controlled by a small elite in Tenochtitlán. Tlacael's administrative reforms worked in conjunction with an ideological reconstruction. He expropriated Mesoamerica's ancient past for his own political agenda. Tlacael's rendition of history proclaimed that Mexica royalty descended from great Toltec leaders. To illustrate his claim, he enhanced the capital city of Tenochtitlán with impressive gardens, architecture, and public art that took inspiration from Toltec ruins.

Aspects of Toltec mythology were also modified and situated within a unique Mexica worldview that was shaped by the hostility the Mexicas endured when they entered the Valley. The Mexicas identified Huitzilopochtli (a Toltec god of war) as their supreme deity, thus raising Huitzilopochtli to the level of Quetzalcoatl (the creator god of the Toltecs). Because the Mexicas were dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, a mystical conception of warfare justified their conquest of all other nations, the very nations that had violently rejected them a century earlier. The rise of Huitzilopochtli coincided with the rise of the Aztec Empire. The Mexicas extended a brutal dominance over the Valley, demanding sacrificial victims to satisfy their patron god. Human sacrifice had existed prior to the Aztec Empire, yet never with such vicious frequency.

Acting on the royal counselor's recommendations, Mexica warriors set out to conquer the independent city-states surrounding Tenochtitlán. They quickly overtook neighboring towns. One by one, towns were forced into submission and were held to treaties that obligated them to pay exorbitant tribute (food, booty, workers, soldiers, women, and sacrificial victims) to Mexica nobility in Tenochtitlán. As the Mexicas expanded their conquest, an Aztec Empire was forged. More tribute arrived in ever-larger quantities, allowing Mexica authorities to give symbolic expression to their Toltec heritage through art and architecture in Tenochtitlán.

Jerome Offner's research has shown how the Aztec tribute system worked in the area of Texcoco. Subjugated towns were allowed to remain autonomous and continue to run their own religious and social affairs. Mexicas did not necessarily impose religious or political dominance, yet they certainly imposed a new economic order. The Aztec Empire was organized into districts; each district had tribute collectors who were responsible for funneling payments to officials in Tenochtitlán. As the empire expanded, more funds and resources allowed Aztec rulers to construct impressive buildings, palaces, plazas, and temples throughout their expanding territory.

Anthropologist Frances Berdan exposed a critical strategy of Aztec economic expansion. Extracting regular tribute payments from conquered towns worked in conjunction with an elaborate long-distance trade network. It was vital to protect porters carrying tribute against pilfering enemies as resources made their way to the capital city of Tenochtitlán. To achieve the necessary security, Aztec authorities offered remote territories leniency or discounts in their requited tribute. In exchange, these communities provided safe zones and provisions for traveling Aztec warriors, porters, and traders. According to Berdan, the Aztecs created strategic buffer zones to protect the empire and the movement of its goods and people.

Under Itzcoatl's reign, the Mexicas forged a coalition with the towns of Texcoco and Tlacopan to form a "triple alliance." This confederation widened the staging ground for Aztec military conquests. Moctezuma I succeeded Itzcoatl in 1440. His first objective was to reassert the supremacy of Tenochtitlán and reaffirm Mexica authority over the subjected towns. He increased tribute payments, particularly in the form of resources and workers, which were needed to construct a system of hydraulic agriculture; the growing urban empire needed more agricultural land. Laborers were also needed to renovate the Great Pyramids of Tenochtitlán. Large amounts of supplies and men were requisitioned for these improvements, and long processions of porters and soldiers began arriving with workers, foodstuffs, equipment, and arms. Tribute collectors organized their districts to fulfill the increased demands, yet tensions throughout the Valley were rising and punitive force was necessary. Moctezuma's second goal was to expand the Aztec Empire through a new series of conquests. This renewed military focus solidified an aggressive course of expansion that dominated Aztec policy until Spanish arrival.

The number of lands paying tribute to Mexica rulers in Tenochtitlán increased dramatically by the end of the first Moctezuma's reign. In 1469 a nineteen-year-old prince named Axayacatl ascended to the throne. Young and brash, he was undaunted by the challenge of matching the military successes of his predecessor. He ruled for thirteen years and continued an Aztec pattern of conquests and reconquests. Tenochtitlán's most terrifying leader was Ahuizotl, who reigned from 1486 to 1502 (he was the predecessor of Moctezuma II). Ahuizotl was revered for his murderous retribution against all enemies. After a punitive campaign to put down rebellious communities along the Gulf Coast in 1487, he staged a ritualized mass sacrifice in the newly remodeled Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlán. It was a gruesome event in which prisoners were lined up along the entire length of a causeway leading into the city awaiting a hideous death. The slaughter lasted four days; blood flowed down the temple steps as invited ambassadors looked on in shock. Mexica elders conveyed a sense of horror fifty years later when Spanish friars recorded their descriptions of the monumental massacre. Ahuizotl marked a turning point in the Aztec Empire; he instilled in the rulership a mystical will to conquer. He was not an administrative warrior like his predecessors. Instead, he was the human embodiment of Huitzilopochtli. By the time of Cortés's arrival in 1519, the Aztec Empire was well along the path of ruthless expansion, an expansion that created an atmosphere of resentment among conquered groups.


Excerpted from Malinche, Pocahontas, and Sacagawea by Rebecca K. Jager. Copyright © 2015 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
Introduction: Feminizing the Story of European Expansion,
Part I. Indian Women in Life,
Chapter 1. Indigenous Social Landscapes Prior to Contact,
Chapter 2. First Encounters,
Chapter 3. Malinche, Pocahontas, and Sacagawea as Cultural Intermediaries,
Chapter 4. Intimate Frontiers,
Part II. Indian Women in Myth,
Chapter 5. Malinche,
Chapter 6. Pocahontas,
Chapter 7. Sacagawea,

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