"For a subject worked and reworked so often in novels, motion pictures, and television, American Indians remain probably the least understood and most misunderstood Americans of us all."

-John F. Kennedy in
the introduction to The American Heritage Book of Indians

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Portraying Pocahontas: or the Not-So-Modern Origins of the "Sexy Indian Princess"

One of the single most pervasive and harmful facets of the 500 year history of "drawing on Indians" remains the sexual objectification of Native women. It's an important issue that can often be lost in the sea of appropriation and faulty information that sadly marks the modern state of Native representation in the wider American culture. But it's an issue that rears its ugly head every October 31st.

"Sexy Indian Princess" anyone?

This issue is in fact part of a larger trend that extends beyond Native communities. Throughout American history, women of color have always been treated as the racialized sexual other for the white male majority.

As Whitney Teal writes in her article One Woman's Costume is another Woman's Nightmare at the Women's Rights section of Change.org:

Consider the "Chiquita Banana" stereotypes of Latinas, oversexed black Jezebels, or the seemingly pliant and sexually subversive Japanese geisha. All of those stereotypical costumes correlate with a tame, sexually pure image of white women, like the European colonist with her full-length skirt, the Scarlett O'Hara on the plantation. Of course, there are also sexy stereotypes for white women, but most aren't ethnicity-specific and most people don't routinely lump all white women into one category.

The fact that Native women are most commonly assaulted by non-Native men is not surprising to me, but does add a historical slant to the idea of how harmful cultural appropriation can be for women. Historically, men have used the implied "natural" sluttiness of women of color as justification for rampant rape or not-really-consensual relationships with women of color, particularly Native women who came into contact with colonists.

Many modern issues for American Indians have roots that run deep in American history. This issue is no different. Reading various articles and comments about this matter, I was reminded of a particular chapter in a particular book that shows just how far back this problem goes.

Camilla Townsend is a history professor at Rutgers University where she specializes in first contact interaction between Native people and Europeans. In 2004, she published Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma which discusses the earliest interaction between the English colonists and the Indians at Jamestown.

Before I even read the book, I fully expected to learn about this early interaction and see how it set the stage for Native-Western encounters in the ensuing 400 years of American history. What I did not realize was how important the previous 100 years were for the English colonists who left England that fateful December of 1606. Long before they set foot in the muddy tidal flats of the James River, these earliest “americans” already had an idea of Native women fixed fast in their minds.

The motley band of one hundred and forty four Englishmen who landed in Virginia in 1607 were far from uneducated. The history I learned growing up had me believe that these English gentlemen shunned hard work in favor of fruitless gold prospecting, all while stumbling about and starving in this "savage new land." While it is true they faced many obstacles, they at least had done the required reading before they left.

The Principall Navigations, Voiages, and Discoveries of the English Nation (1589)

Indeed, it is the overview on New World literature available to the English colonists that makes Professor Townsend's book so compelling. It is in her description of these sixteenth century works that the origins of the “sexualized Indian” becomes so abundantly clear.

She writes of lurid tales of an exotic land spreading throughout Europe within the first few years of Columbus' arrival in the Americas. From the earliest illustrations, America was routinely depicted as a naked Indian woman, a metaphor not lost on the Spanish conquistadors who conquered the “virgin” lands of the New World. Even the English described the Indians in and around the failed Roanoke colony as sweet and welcoming, “devoid of all guile and treason.” (p. 28)

These works inspired hundreds if not thousands of Englishmen to risk their lives and money to journey to this land of “opportunity.” Native women were portrayed as not only accessible but willing. It was seen as practically divine mandate that these Englishmen sow their seed in the new world both literally and figuratively.

As Townsend writes:

“There is no question that John Smith and his peers- those who wrote such books, and those who read them- embraced a notion of an explorer as a conqueror who strode with many steps through lands of admirers, particularly admiring young women... the colonizers of the imagination were men- men imbued with almost mystical powers. The foreign women and the foreign lands wanted, even needed, these men, for such men were more than desirable.” (p. 29)

European men fabricated the “New World” into a perfect masculine fantasy where savagery and sexuality mingled together in a myriad of tantalizing forms.

As the title of Townsend's book suggests, a certain young Indian girl entered the equation as soon as the Englishmen arrived. Today, she stands tall as the embodiment of the sexualized Indian princess who threw herself upon the white man John Smith in order to save his life. It is also a story that bleeds more fiction than fact.

Townsend brilliantly puts Pocahontas, the woman and the myth, in their historical context:

“Pocahontas, we must remember, was a real person. She was not always a myth. Long before she became an icon, she was a child who walked and played beneath the towering trees of the Virginia woods, and then an adult woman who learned to love-- and to hate-- English men. Myths can lend meaning to our days, and they can inspire wonderful movies. They are also deadly to our understanding.” (ix-x)

The tale of Pocahontas and John Smith came to prominence thanks to Smith's publications. He happily describes the young thirteen or fourteen year-old Pocahontas in alluring terms, “nubile and sexy” joined by other naked young women. (p. 74)

The Abduction of Pocahontas (c.1618)

In reality, she was a mere ten or eleven years old. A young girl who tried to live an ordinary life in extraordinary times.

All of the depictions of Pocahontas and Smith since their real-life encounter have only served to transform the historical reality of statutory rape into something not only palatable but pleasing for readers and movie audiences alike.

One only needs to look at the more modern depictions of Pocahontas to see this myth in action:

"Pocahontas" (c.1848)

"Pocahontas" (c.1883)

Pocahontas (1995)

The New World (2005)

A young attractive teenage girl tantalizing the white man.  Not the normal eleven year old girl of history.  In essence, the myth and not reality.  And sadly a myth with very real consequences even today.

Reading the various articles about sexual violence against Native women, the countless problems with sexy Indian costumes, and the historical insights on Pocahontas really made me sit up and think this Halloween.

I hope it does the same for you.

For more information:

Native American Women and Violence at NOW

Indian Women as Sex Objects at Blue Corn Comics

Pocahontas Bastardizes Real People at Blue Corn Comics

The Pocahontas Myth at Powhatan Renape Nation



  1. Hello, I really like you blog and what you are saying with an exception. The whole "Indian Grandma" thing is rather insensitive. You dont seem to understand at all how this feels, and to be light skined of partial desent. Conflicted responses will be a norm. You know very well that early on "light skined" native women were the first to get married off to whites usually through no choice of their own. You should count yourself lucky to have grown up in an era of relative tolerance. I have painfull memories of hate crimes and beatings my native grandmother suffered during the mid-sixties. She was Osage and over six foot tall with brown skin she pathtically tried to bleach. Way too tall to pretend to be Hispanic like many Natives did back then (and now?) Understand, I like your purpose to elevate native women in todays world, but dont forget some of us are a little ashamed our grandmothers chose to be sex objects 100 years ago, instead of a corpse.