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Pocahontas & Me

Pocahontas and Me (2009)
Lenticular Print. 104 x 114 cm
Collection of Remai Art Gallery

The work Pocahontas & Me juxtaposes the only known realistic portrayal of Pocahontas and her son, Thomas Rolfe, with an image of me with my son, Art Longman.

Pocahontas (c.1595–1617) was the daughter of Wahunsenacawh, better known as Chief Powhatan, who led the Algonquian Powhatan Confederacy, a network of thirty tributary tribal nations in a region they called Tenakomakah. Her village was Werowocomoco, twelve miles from Jamestown, Virginia. Her formal names were Matoaka and Amonute; Pocahontas was a nickname meaning something like ‘playful’ or ‘frolicsome.’ In 1607, while still a girl, Pocahontas met Captain John Smith, age twenty-seven, who was leading an expedition into Powhatan territory when they took him captive. According to a written account by Smith, Pocahontas saved him from execution, but although this story has become famous, most scholars today doubt its veracity since Smith did not record this event in any of his writings until a 1616 letter to Queen Anne, when Pocahontas was already well known.

Several documents state that after Smith’s month-long captivity, he and Pocahontas remained good friends, though it is uncertain what a twelve year old and a twenty-seven year old would have in common. Pocahontas was known to bring food to the residents of the English colony of Jamestown, and played games with the children there. Her friendship with Smith was short-lived, as during the first year of the English and Powhatan War (1609–1613), Smith suffered an accidental gunpowder burn that caused him to flee to England for treatment, never to return to Virginia.

Sometime around 1610, Pocahontas married Kocoum, a Powhatan warrior, about whom not much is known. In March 1613, Captain Samuel Argall took her hostage and, after a year of captivity, the English brought Pocahontas back into Powhatan territory with an escort of 150 armed men. Soon after the battle that ensued, they released Pocahontas, who confessed to her family that she had been treated well while away and had fallen in love with the Englishman John Rolfe, and she requested permission from her father to marry him. Powhatan gave his consent, as both parties knew that the marriage could potentially restore peace between the two warring communities. Pocahontas was likely also aware of the political implications of her marriage, posing the question as to whether her desire for the union was truly out of love or a political decision to save her people.

In 1616 Pocahontas, her husband, and their newborn son, along with a group of about eleven other Powhatan natives, journeyed to England as ambassadors for the Jamestown settlement. They lived in the suburb of Brentwood, Middlesex, and were entertained at various society gatherings. In early 1617, she, Rolfe, and two year old Thomas had just embarked on their return voyage back to Virginia, when she became gravely ill with pneumonia, smallpox, or tuberculosis (or, some say, even poisoning). She was taken ashore, and very quickly died. On March 21, 1617, at twenty-two years of age, she was buried in a private vault beneath the chancellor of the church in Gravesend, England. Attempts to find and bring her bones back to her home in 1923 were unsuccessful, due to the relocation of her bones to the church courtyard in 1727 after a fire destroyed the church, and supposedly no identification records where kept.

Pocahontas’s son, Thomas, grew up in England, but as an adult returned to his mother’s homeland and became a militia officer, commanding a frontier fort in western Henrico on the James River. Many ‘first families’ of Virginia trace their roots to Pocahontas through the descendents of her son.

Nobody knows the name of the artist who painted Pocahontas’ portrait. It was known for many years as the Heacham Hall Pocahontas, after the estate owned by the family of Pocahontas’s English husband. After the painting’s transfer to another Rolfe property, it is now referred to as the Sedgeford Portrait of Pocahontas, and is on view in the Town Hall in King’s Lynn, Norfolk. Unable to locate a colour image of the portrait, I had to repaint a colour image based on a black and white reproduction and descriptions of the original’s colours found in archival records.

While Pocahontas witnessed many brutalities of war and was taken captive by the English, I am witness to a different, silent war of post-colonial times, when imperialism is maintained by accepted government policies and enforced by armies when Aboriginal people protest or rebel. Like Pocahontas, I too have been a captive of colonialism, taken as a “permanent ward of the court” when I was a child and forbidden to see my family for eleven years as a result of the “Sixties Scoop.” Frequently I witness embedded racism that views Aboriginals as inferior in such common places such as grocery or clothing stores, where we are served last or spoken to in patronizing tones, or in work places, where our professionalism is underestimated and we are paid lower wages.

Pocahontas & Me attempts to both to humanize Pocahontas’s identity as an Aboriginal woman and mother and also to diminish the lines between the past and present. She and I were born in different periods of the same colonial regime, and have faced vastly different obstacles, but a combined portrait of us with our bi-racial sons creates empathy and a bridge between our differences of time and place. I understand how she must have felt in a bi-racial union, with concerns about how the two culturally different families would blend. I also understand how she must have felt to be away from her family, and the concern she must have had, when she knew that she was dying, over leaving behind her two year old son. How would Thomas thrive in the world as a mixed-blood, and who would accept him?


i See, for example, The Story of Pocahontas and Captain John Smith, by E. Boyd Smith (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1906).