Memory  /  Biography

Will the Real Pocahontas Please Stand Up?

We might be better off if we knew a little more – or a little less – about her actual life.
New York Public Library

She is among the best known Native Americans in history, but the modern-day descendants of Pocahontas, who four centuries ago married an English colonist and sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, show little interest in her.

On March 21, ceremonies in the United States and England will mark 400 years since her death. But there will be no event to honour that date on the Pamunkey Indian Reservation in Virginia where her tribespeople now live.

"For the Pamunkey tribe, it's not a big deal. She doesn't mean a whole lot to us. Her contributions to our way of life didn't really amount to much," says Robert Gray, chief of the 100-person riverside community.

"We understand the English and Americans think highly of Pocahontas. We appreciate that it brings an interest to our tribe, but we just sit back and figure: if people want to worship a myth, then let them do it."

The adulation elsewhere is clear. Disney's 1995 movie about the free-spirited beauty won two Oscars and remains a children's favourite. The arms of her bronze statue at the colonial site, Historic Jamestowne, have been buffed to a shine by thousands of caressing visitors over the years.

Yet, for the Pamunkey, who trace their origins through Pocahontas and her father, Wahunsenacawh, who led some 15,000 Powhatan tribespeople when English ships landed in 1607, the history of the unconventional young peacemaker is troublesome.

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