Role Plays: Pocahontas, Matoaka, Amonute, Rebecca: Chief Powhatan’s Daughter, John Rolfe's Wife
NOTE: This teaching exercise allows the teacher to employ role playing as a way to engage students in the learning process. Suggestions are included in the sections on “Casting Instructions.” Teachers may designate monologues, two or more student participants, or student to class exchanges. Teachers are also free to depart from these suggestions and use the historical material as they wish to create their own learning strategies.
TITLE: Chief Powhatan's Daughter
INFORMATION TO BE SHARED WITH ALL PLAYERS
Pocahontas was the favorite daughter of Chief Powhatan who created an alliance of about 30 Indian tribes in Tidewater Virginia. Countless romantic novels, movies, paintings, sculptures, even songs, have created indomitable legends of her saving John Smith from execution and the beginnings of a romantic relationship. Historians from Henry Adams to the present have debunked these as myths largely created by John Smith himself. Despite what Elvis Presley said in “Fever,” or the most recent version in the Walt Disney animated feature Pocahontas (1995) and the Terrence Malick film The New World (2005), all of which emphasize an unlikely romance between the young girl and Smith, there is no credible evidence of such a relationship. She did meet Smith several times and served Powhatan as an intermediary in his dealings with the colonists. In 1610, she married an Indian named Kocum, but the marriage was invalidated by custom after the English captured her three years later and held her for ransom at Jamestown. She was sent to Fort Henricus (near present day Richmond) where Reverend Alexander Whitaker instructed her in Christianity. After her conversion, she was baptized, named Rebecca, and married John Rolfe on 5 April 1614. Her secret personal Indian name Matoaka was given to her at birth and she was also known by another Indian name as Amonute. Powhatan approved the marriage to Rolfe to end a period of conflict known as the First Anglo-Powhatan War (1609-1614). On several occasions, she intervened to aid the colonists, imploring her father to aid them and alerting them to a planned attack on the fort. It may be going too far, as some historians have said, to call her a princess or diplomat, but she was no less valuable in being the eyes and ears of activities and plans inside the fort and in Werowocomoco. In 1616, she along with Rolfe and their one-year old son, Thomas, traveled to London at the request and expense of the Virginia Company of London who saw the visit as a means of encouraging more immigrants to come to Virginia. There she impressed both King James I and the bishop of London and reunited briefly with John Smith who had left the Virginia colony in 1609. Soon after beginning her return voyage to Virginia, she became gravely ill, died at Gravesend in March 1617 and was buried at St. George’s Church. Many elite Virginians have claimed descent from her, causing the “Pocahontas exception” to a Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924. The Act was passed during a time of heightened racial tensions and sought to declare all Virginians, including Indian descendants, as either colored or white: “except those who have one-sixteenth or less of the blood of the American Indian and have no other non-Caucasic blood shall be deemed to be white persons."
BIOGRAPHICAL PROFILE (Bracketed Annotations, hypertext links, and Additions to the Timeline, Encyclopedia of Virginia History)
Pocahontas nature can only be surmised from her reactions to events going on around her together with a few scattered comments in English records. Her first encounter with the English, as an eleven-year old, revealed her to be playful -- fascinated by the sight of strangely dressed men with unfamiliar habits-- who frolicked with the boys in James Fort. Of course, her behavior and attitude mature over time, especially the more she saw and got to know the English as dishonest and at times cruel invaders. The most intriguing, elusive, and underappreciated figures in the history of Atlantic World colonization are those individuals we might designate as Algonquian brokers. These were men and women who served as the interface between two worlds. At times suspected by both and usually trusted by neither, they served in a variety of capacities. Liminals could speak English (or Spanish or French), were familiar with the ways of the invaders, understood how to deal with fellow Algonquians, and were thoroughly familiar with local geography. They were usually forced into the brokerage role. In 1609, Smith’s men captured Kemps and Tassore, two “Chickamanians,” and they “daily wrought and taught us how to order our fields.” Sometimes brokers were exchanged. Examples of this type are Namontack who traveled with Christopher Newport back to England in 1608. Thomas Savage, an English boy, was left with Powhatan in exchange for Namontack. Uttamatommakin (also known as Tomocomo or Tomakin) went with Pocahontas to England in 1616 and 1617 as Powhatan’s envoy and “reporter.” The most famous liminal at Jamestown, Pocahontas was abducted, sent to the English fort near Richmond where Rev. Alexander Whitaker instructed her in Christianity. Later, she was baptized in a public ceremony and grew into the brokerage role, as she moved from playing innocent games with English boys as a child and morphed as an adult into the most effective and influential broker in the Virginia colony. Her time spent with Reverend Whitaker and marriage to John Rolfe made her more familiar with English language, religion, and culture. Powhatan forced her into the role of negotiator and diplomat, but she seems to have acted on her own persuasion and understanding. She comes across as a strong and independent woman. The Simon van de Passe portrait reveals, beneath the English dress and royal fashion, the gaze of a strong, self-confident woman. Variously, she saved the boy Henry Spelman when the Indians attacked, on her own volition warned the Jamestown colony of an impending attack which had Powhatan known he would have “surely slaine her,” and married John Rolfe, not because she was forced to but because she loved him. Some historians have challenged her monikers as a “princess” and “diplomat.” What comes through in most accounts, according to one historian, was that she was “energetic and fun-loving, open and interested, adventuresome and smart.” (Camilla Townsend) She even managed to convince Rolfe that the Indians had a just and lawful title to their lands. These actions do not support a blank slate persona. They do support the role she played in helping the English survive and build a nation.
CONFIDENTIAL INFORMATION AND CASTING INSTRUCTIONS
Let’s pretend that a teacher has given a student an assignment to find images, movie trailers, sculptures, music, or anything that depicts Pocahontas. The role-playing will then involve a dialogue between what this student has found and what you, as Pocahontas know about the real figure. In this myth and reality exchange, you should stress the following:
Camilla Townsend, Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma (2004)
Encyclopedia of Virginia History
Pocahontas images; Terrence Malick’s, The New World; Disney, Pocahontas
©This module created by Crandall Shifflett, Virginia Tech
All Rights Reserved, 2017