The story of Pocahontas contains far more than the uplifting – and hugely popular – animated films from Disney. The daughter of paramount chief Powhatan, Matoaka was born in what is now Virginia state around 1596, and known then and since as Pocahontas. She was an influential figure in her community and lived through a period of exceptional change as the English established a permanent settlement in the ‘New World’.
During her short life, Pocahontas was closely involved with the colony at Jamestown, and may have provided them with food during a crisis. She was later taken hostage, converted to Christianity as ‘Rebecca’ and married to an English settler John Rolfe. John and Rebecca were Virginia’s first tobacco farmers and travelled with their young son Thomas to England to raise funds for the colony in 1616. As Rebecca Rolfe, she was presented to the royal court in London.
Pocahontas fell ill in early 1617. The family set out for home in March but stopped at Gravesend where she disembarked, died and is buried. She was little more than 21 years old.
Pocahontas is an icon of popular culture, yet her real story is left largely untold.
About the project
Pocahontas 2017 pulled at the tangled threads of myth and history to get beyond the mythical ‘Indian Princess’ and seek a richer understanding of the life and experience of Matoaka / Pocahontas / Rebecca Rolfe. We may never recover the ‘real’ Pocahontas, but we could explore the issues her history presents and bring both the shared history of Britain and America and current themes including native rights, cultural appropriation and multi-racial identity into clearer focus today.
As a result of this project there was a greater understanding of challenges she encountered during her lifetime presenting new opportunities for those with connections to her story to come together for the first time in the US and UK. The legacy of this project is a fresher and sharper understanding of her story with relevance for young people today.
About the Pocahontas 2017 logo
The Pocahontas 2017 logo is a photograph of a gourd that Ethan Brown created for the project. Ethan is a member of the Pamunkey tribe (the same tribe as Pocahontas), and lives on the Pamunkey Reservation in King William, Virginia. Ethan is an artist who makes artwork in various mediums that he sells at the Pamunkey Indian Museum on the Pamunkey Reservation. He has worked on numerous commissions and has displayed artwork in galleries around Virginia.
Here he describes the process of creating his design:
“Since this is an anniversary of Pocahontas’s death, the main idea in the piece was to show a Powhatan story of the afterlife.
As the story goes, there is an afterlife for certain people. At death, a path opens up to you into the stars that lead to the land of the rising sun where the Great Hare dwells, along with our ancestral spirits. You travel this path into the stars, lined with the most divine berries and fruiting plants, and when you reach the land of the rising sun, you feast and dance with the Great Hare and are reunited with your ancestors. But this is not an afterlife that lasts forever, it is a cycle, and eventually you are reborn back into your culture.
That is the story I was depicting; at the top of the gourd is the rising sun with the Great Hare in the center of it. And below, an image of Pocahontas, in her hand a feather fan and a belt of wampum over her arm. The trees on either side I based roughly off of the persimmon tree and the pawpaw tree. The feathers represent the path of the spirit. The belt of wampum, in a historical context, originated later than Pocahontas’s time, but in the timeless space of this image, I felt was an appropriate symbol for her to approach the Creator with. It carries her message; it assists her on this path, this transfer to the spirit world.
As an artist I just go by feeling. Most gourds, being a natural medium, usually have some sort of minor cracks or abrasions or mottling of the surface to some degree. I embrace this, and it is often times these imperfections that suggest the design to me. It is sort of a magical quality that gourds have, and often times I feel like the design is already there for me to find.
In the case of this gourd, there was a minor crack that runs along Pocahontas’s neck that really guided how I positioned her. And then at the top of the gourd near the stem, there was some sort of split in the gourds surface that lined up perfectly with the top of the sun’s rays. It makes it feel like I am doing the artwork right when these things happen.”
Big Ideas was the Creative Director for the programme managing the partnership, liaising with the Pamunkey Tribal Council and creating an online platform for the anniversary and delivering community engagement initiatives throughout 2017.
British Council in partnership with Big Ideas developed an education resource for schools, exploring the theme of Pocahontas as a global citizen and connecting schools around the globe to discover and respond to her story.
Institute for Historical Research and the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library hosted an academic conference in March 2017, bringing together global academics to debate the varying narratives of her life and it relevance to contemporary cultural identity in the UK and US today.
British Museum hosted a special lunchtime lecture in March 2017 presented by Max Carocci.
Visit Gravesend and Gravesham Borough Council planned a series of commemorative events throughout 2016 and 2017 to give due recognition to Pocahontas’s historic and cultural significance in their region. Pocahontas was buried under the chancel of the original parish Church of St George’s Church in Gravesend. For information on the commemorative programme visit pocahontas400.co.uk.
BORDER CROSSINGS’ ORIGINS FESTIVAL returned to once again celebrate the world’s indigenous cultures in London. This festival creates a unique opportunity to engage with indigenous artists, intellectuals and activists at the cutting edge of cultural resistance, environmentalism, and spiritual tradition.
To mark the 400th anniversary of Pocahontas’ death, ORIGINS FESTIVAL showcased events that bring her story to life, including a rich programme of film screenings, commemoration events, afternoon talks and guided tours. Visit the ORIGINS FESTIVAL website to find out more.
Rainmaker Gallery, Bristol, 23 March – 31 May 2017
We Are Native Women celebrated the strength and diversity of Native American women through the recent work of twelve contemporary Indigenous North American artists from the USA and Canada. The exhibition included a range of media, from painting, printmaking and photography to basket weaving. Visiting artist Marla Allison from Laguna Pueblo tribe attended the opening of the exhibition and gave a talk about her work.
The artworks in this exhibition depicted women of all ages, strong, powerful, nurturing, caring, desirable, provocative, dangerous, real and supernatural. It highlighted individual and communal struggles, concerns and life choices of women from several Native cultures across the continent.
Featured artists included Marla Allison (Laguna Pueblo), Cara Romero (Chemehuevi), Shan Goshorn (Cherokee), Shelley Niro (Mohawk), Kali Spitzer (Kaska Dena & Jewish) and Zoe Urness (Tlingit & Cherokee), Alison Bremner (Tlingit), Sierra Edd (Navajo/Diné), Luanne Redeye (Seneca), Eugene Tapahe (Navajo) and Debra Yepa-Pappan (Jemez Pueblo & Korean).
We Are Native Women was curated by Dr Stephanie Pratt, Cultural Ambassador for the Crow Creek Dakota Tribal Council and Joanne Prince, Director of Rainmaker Gallery. It was one of several events happening across the country under the umbrella of ‘Pocahontas 2017’ co- ordinated by Big Ideas.
Pocahontas and after: historical culture and transatlantic encounters, 1617 – 2017, 16 – 18 March 2017
A major international conference commemorated the 400th anniversary of Pocahontas’ death. Co-hosted by the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library and the Institute for Historical Research.
Using Pocahontas’ visit to England and her death and burial in Kent as an entry point, the conference explored the continued interest in Pocahontas as a subject of study. It explored the academic challenges posed by the multiple versions and the contemporary appropriations of this Powhatan/Pamunkey woman variously known as Amonute, Matoaka, Pocahontas, and Rebecca. In exploring the life and afterlives of Pocahontas, it opened new and exciting interdisciplinary discussions.
Download the launch press release here: Pocahontas 2017 press release-120117