The Pocahontas and Powhatan Dilemma

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Teachers note:
” I’d also strongly (oh so strongly!) recommend that you read the assignment before you really get going on the book. The first few questions? You can bang those out after reading the first chapters. The questions towards the end will be answered after you read the whole book.

Some of those last questions also will very much be you expressing your opinion; don’t worry about the “right answer” there. Knowing the assignment questions will also help you remember you don’t need to know every detail in the book.

Be as specific as possible when answering. The best answers will contain at least four complete sentences. Show me you did the reading by providing specific examples and parenthetical references to pages in the book. (Basically page cites, as in question 10 below.) At least half of your answers should include a quote. Type up and double-space your answers. All work should be done on your own; plagiarism will earn an F.

1. In choosing to start from the Native American point of view, Townsend is already shifting the general approach to contact stories. How does Chapter 1 surprise you? What insight does it give you about the culture of Pocahontas’s people?

2. The English came to America with certain assumptions. What were some of their critical expectations? Where did those expectations come from? (Chapter 2 will help here.)

3. The Jamestown colony had problems from the very beginning. In what ways was that colony poorly equipped for success?

4. How did we get the idea that Powhatan ever intended to execute Smith? What probably really happened after Smith was captured?

5. Townsend shows that there have been many myths built up around Pocahontas. What are three myths that she discredits?
6. Why does Pocahontas marry John Rolfe? How does this marriage change her life?

7. After reading the book, what is your impression of John Smith?

8. After reading the book, what is your impression of Powhatan (Pocahontas’ father)?

9. After reading the book, what is your impression of Pocahontas?

10. Townsend argues that “When we allow [Pocahontas’s] story to unfold, we see not only that she herself was more than we thought, but that the moment of this country’s inception was different from what we have been led to believe.” (Townsend, xi) How does this book change your understanding of our country’s origins?

11. In your view, which is the more interesting version of the Pocahontas story: the fact or the fiction? What is gained by correcting the myths? What might be lost?

12. Why do you think Townsend wrote this book? As the author, what did she do well? What might she have done better?

Reading Guide for Camilla Townsend’s Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma
(Note: This is not the assignment! The information below is intended to help you as you read the book.)

In the fairly recent past, the story of Jamestown was told by historians as an adventure story: Brave men from England came to the New World and broke ground on what would eventually become the United States. This old version of the Jamestown moment often paid very little attention to the Native Americans of the area. When they did appear, they were generally described as primitives with a savage culture. One Native American who was at least occasionally discussed with more detail was Pocahontas, but she was described as a young woman beguiled by the civilization of the English, entranced to such a degree that she could almost be accused of betraying her own people.
In more recent years, the Jamestown story has been told differently. The English are often portrayed as violent invaders, whose greed led them to America, where they decimated Native American culture. In this story, Pocahontas, when she appears, is a pawn. More importantly, her people are portrayed as innocent, if simple, victims. They are not described as people who had any real power over their own lives.

Camilla Townsend wrote a book that rejects both of these overly simplistic views. She goes back to historical documents. She figures out how many of the old stories are based on good evidence, and how many of them are myths being reinforced by retelling. She ends up telling a more complicated tale—in which the English certainly aren’t heroes, but the Native Americans also certainly aren’t dupes. She tells an engaging story about cultural negotiations that included BOTH the English and the Indians, she shows how historians can get their narratives wrong, and she seeks to set Pocahontas’s legacy right. And that’s why I assigned the book.

Don’t just skip over this section! Quite often authors lay out their plan here, and that is certainly true in this book. Here Townsend tells us why she bothered to write this book and implies that the real Pocahontas is much more interesting than the mythical one.

Chapter 1 Amonte’s People
This chapter details the Powhatan world and their previous interactions with “others”. It also lets you have a peek into Pocahontas’s culture before you leap into the English Jamestown.

Chapter 2 What the English Knew
This chapter discusses the European competition that made English men eager to follow the Spanish to the New World. It tells us that the English generally had a lot of misconceptions about how things in America would play out.

Chapter 3 First Contact
This powerful chapter actively goes after many of the myths about the first contact. We see that the English set up camp in a bad spot. We get some insight into what Powhatan might have thought of the Europeans—and how he might have hoped to have gained from his relationship with them. We also see the truth behind the “Pocahontas rescued John Smith” story.

Chapter 4 Jamestown
With this chapter, we see that things get desperate at Jamestown. The English start to take captives and demand help from the Native Americans, but really have very little power. This chapter also starts to talk more about Pocahontas and the role she played as a go-between for the English and her people.

Chapter 5 Kidnapped
This chapter fills in a gap in time. We learn what Pocahontas did in her early adolescence. We also see that the Jamestown colony largely restructures its government and goals. John Rolfe is introduced and Pocahontas is captured.

Chapter 6 Imprisonment
In this chapter, we hear about Pocahontas’ time as a captive of the English. We see what she learns about their culture. We also are told about the formation of her relationship with her later husband, John Rolfe.

Chapter 7 Pocahontas and John
In this chapter, we have a peek at what might happen if Native American and English people work together. Pocahontas changes a bit. Rolfe uncovers a successful way to grow tobacco, which would soon be hugely important.

Chapter 8 In London Town
In this chapter Native Americans travel to London in an attempt to get some positive PR for the Virginia colony. The city and culture are overwhelming. However, we still see that Pocahontas asserts her own identity.

Chapter 9 1622, and Queen Cockacoeske
In this chapter, we see the dissolution of any real successful relationship between the English and the Powhatan. In many ways, the Powhatan loss is portrayed as inevitable, but Townsend also stresses the importance of the fact that this culture survives. 

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