Cover image for Pocahontas : medicine woman, spy, entrepreneur, diplomat
Pocahontas : medicine woman, spy, entrepreneur, diplomat
Allen, Paula Gunn.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
San Francisco : HarperSanFrancisco, [2003]

Physical Description:
xvi, 350 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm
Geographic Term:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
E99.P85 P57145 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
E99.P85 P57145 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
E99.P85 P57145 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Biography
E99.P85 P57145 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Biography

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In striking contrast to conventional accounts, Pocahontas is a bold and daring biography that attempts to tell the extraordinary story of the beloved Indian maiden from the Native American perspective. Drawing from sources often overlooked by Western historians, Dr. Paula Gunn Allen offers remarkable new insights into the adventurous life and sacred role of this foremost American heroine.

We have all heard about the love-struck Pocahontas saving the dashing Captain John Smith from execution by the Chief of the Powhatans, but what if the whole event was a staged ritual of his death as a foreigner and his rebirth as an adopted member of the Powhatan Nation? Settlers at Jamestown report a young, cartwheeling Pocahontas frequently at their fort, but could the innocent-looking visitor actually have been a spy -- reporting back to her elders what she saw there? Was Pocahontas willingly kidnapped by the British settlers in exchange for corn and other ransom from her tribe, or was this a part of her more elaborate plan? We have been taught that this amazing woman was later baptized a Christian and married in the church at Jamestown, yet she helped her husband, John Rolfe, grow and export tobacco -- a powerful, indigenous herb to which the Native Americans attributed shamanic powers. Finally, the "Indian Princess," now known as Lady Rebecca Rolfe, traveled to England for an audience with King James I and Queen Anne. Was this a publicity stunt orchestrated by the English backers of the Virginia colony, or was Pocahontas fulfilling her role as a "Beloved Woman," an honor designated to a female of great spiritual power who was to be trained from birth in the diplomatic and political ways of her tribe?

Pocahontas became an extraordinary ambassador, forming groundbreaking relations between the Indians, the American colonists, and the British. Dr. Gunn Allen convincingly argues that through all of this, Pocahontas fulfilled a crucial and essential role in the birth of a New World. This stunning portrait presents the fascinating, untold story of one of the most romantic and beloved figures in American history, and reveals why so many have revered Pocahontas as the female counterpart to George Washington, the true "Mother of Our Nation."

Author Notes

Of Laguna Pueblo and Sioux descent, Allen was one of the best-known Native American writers and critics and cousin to another, Leslie Marmon Silko. She was born in Grants, New Mexico, on October 24, 1939. She received a bachelor's degree in English in 1966 and a master's degree of fine arts in creative writing in 1968 from the University of Oregon and a doctorate in American studies in 1975 from the University of New Mexico. She taught at numerous schools during her lifetime including San Francisco State, University of California at Berkeley and University of California at Los Angeles.

She wrote 17 books including volumes of her own poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. She also edited important collections of Native American writing. She received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ford Foundation, and the University of California at Los Angeles, where she was a postdoctoral fellow in American Indian Studies. She received numerous awards including an American Book Award for editing Spider Woman's Granddaughters: Short Stories by American Indian Writers in 1990 and the Hubbell Medal in 1999.

She devoted much of her work to combating oppression by critiquing the ideas that have sanctioned it. The Woman Who Owned the Shadows (1983), is about a woman who comes to realize that she is a lesbian. Allen explores and affirms for women and lesbians the ideas of Spider Grandmother who, in many Native American traditions, is the creator of the heavens, the earth, and all the spirit beings, and therefore an icon of female power. The Sacred Hoop (1986), is a collection of essays written over a number of years that explicitly argue that Native American literature, traditions, mythology, and spirituality can be powerful antidotes to white racism, sexism, and homophobia.

She died of lung cancer on May 29, 2008.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

In what is presented as the first study of its kind by an American Indian scholar, Allen (The Sacred Hoop) offers a corrective to the romantic story of Pocahontas told initially by Capt. John Smith of the Virginia Company and most recently by Disney Studios. Euro-American historical accounts of Pocahontas's brief life, asserts Allen, typically depict her as a lovelorn and tragic character (she died in 1617 in the aptly named river port of Gravesend, England, at the age of 20 or 21). Allen's Pocahontas, by contrast, is a real visionary, a prodigiously gifted young woman fervently devoted to the spiritual traditions of her people: a loose-knit group of Algonquin tribes known as the Powhatan Alliance, or Tsenacommacah. When the English colonists who began establishing Jamestown in 1607 invaded the Tsenacommacah, Pocahontas immediately identified it as the fulfillment of a prophecy that foretold the end of their world and the beginning of a new one, argues Allen. It was "world change time," she writes, and Pocahontas (also called Matoaka, Amonute and finally Lady Rebecca Rolfe) was nothing if not mutable-as implied by the book's subtitle. Still, notwithstanding Pocahontas's significant role in American history, Allen's claims that Pocahontas "set in motion a chain of events that would," among other things, "liberate the starving and miserable peoples of Europe and beyond" can seem overstated. More persuasive are Allen's comments about the cultural similarities between the English and Algonquin and the idea that each group changed the other. When casting Pocahontas as "the embodiment of this dual cultural transformation," her role, and the book, are at their clearest, and are made manifest by Allen's often lyrical and powerful writing. (On sale Oct. 7) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Allen (English, emerita, UCLA) flaunts her Native American heritage in order to differentiate her "biography" of Pocahontas from those written by nonnatives. It is the native perspective that apparently gives her license to construct an image of Pocahontas as a "shaman-priestess, sorcerer, adept of high degree" without any cited evidence, unless one accepts a supposed probability that she was a member of the Midewewin (a secret society of medicine men and women). Allen treats this probability as fact and uses it as the book's lynchpin, which, in turn, allows her to sprinkle her feminist Native American perspective liberally throughout. Despite Allen's claims, this native perspective is suspect at best since she is of Laguna Pueblo/Metis and Sioux descent, while Pocahontas was a Powhatan and thus Algonquin. This book is not recommended; libraries needing authoritative biographical information on Native American women, including Pocahontas, should instead purchase the outstanding anthology Sifters: Native American Women's Lives, edited by Theda Perdue.-John Burch, Campbellsville Univ. Lib., KY (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Two authors add their spin to the often told Jamestown story. Price catches the daily drama in the struggle for survival and the troubled relations among the settlement's leaders and their Native American counterparts, focusing on Captain John Smith. Allen (emer., English, UCLA), of Native American descent (Laguna Pueblo), depicts Pocahontas from the Indian point of view. Unfortunately, instead of adhering to the southern Algonquian culture, Allen gets "off the reservation," digressing at length into a hodgepodge of reference material ranging from the folkways of various Indian groups to Arthurian legend and subsequent US history. Nevertheless, her theme is that Pocahontas was a medicine woman with a "Dream Vision," which she served in her role as diplomat, spy, and, especially, as someone destined to bridge two cultures. Allen even validates (to her own satisfaction, but not likely readers') the unfolding of the supernatural in the course of human events. Price, however, avoids such exaggeration and nebulousness, giving a straightforward narrative of the early Virginians; his main contribution is portraying John Smith as a "Machiavellian," one who knew how to use power and was a master of deceit. Price fills some gaps in the traditional history of John Smith and Virginia, but one wishes that he had more of a historian's perspective, weighing evidence and mentioning controversial ecological theories concerning the founding of the colony. While Allen has searched historical records and Indian oral traditions, she occasionally errs, such as placing Chief Black Kettle at the battle of Wounded Knee. Although her freewheeling approach is difficult to forgive, Allen presents a comparative study of Indian cultures and enlightens readers on the worldview of Native American spirituality. Price has a problem with tediousness, adhering too closely to a strict, detailed chronology. Both books have value as reappraisals of two progenitors of the early US. ^BSumming Up: Recommended. Price for general readers; Allen more for specialists and believers in supernatural-inspired behavior. H. M. Ward emeritus, University of Richmond



Pocahontas Medicine Woman, Spy, Entrepreneur, Diplomat Chapter One Apowa / Dream-Vision "This is not a land for gods," said the buffalo man. But it was not the buffalo man talking anymore ... it was the fire speaking, the crackling and the burning of the flame itself that spoke to Shadow in the dark place under the earth. "This land was brought up from the depths of the ocean by a diver," said the fire. "It was spun from its own substance by a spider. It was shat by a raven. It is the bones of a fallen father, whose bones are mountains, whose eyes are lakes." "This is the land of dreams and fire," said the flame. -- Neil Gaiman Mystery, not history, was the bread of life. -- Richard Noll According to Indigenous Science, everything that exists is held within the great cycle of time, and thus there exist ceremonies that acknowledge and assist in its renewal. -- F. David Peat oo-maa haa'a / once upon a time That was the time that Yellow Woman was taken by Whirlwind Manito, and he took her to another place far beyond the great waters. She was standing in the south. In the south she was standing. First Whirlwind man came from the south, and then he came from the east, then he came from the east another time. That was when Yellow Woman knew that it was time. She was standing in the south, and Southwind Woman was talking to her. Look here, Southwind Woman said. Yellow Woman. You should go to the south a little ways. You should find the one who will take you across the great water. That's the one who comes on a seabird with great white wings. The one that moves by my breath, or the breath of one of my sisters. Yellow Woman waited. She was standing there in the south. In the south she was waiting. Then the wind came from the south, and she stood. I will not go to the water just yet, she said. Later, when the dawn comes. When the north wind comes to stay. When Ice Manito, Windigo, comes. Then maybe I will go. Then Yellow Woman. She was very young, and she got very tired of waiting. But it was the way of her people, and her aunts kept her heart strong. They gave her many dances to learn, and many chants to sing. They helped her make the steps and the calls with her throat that would carry into the world of the manito. She went out every day. She went here and she went other places. And the time passed until the ice held the world still and silent, and she heard the wind saying. Now, Yellow Woman. This time. She went back to where the old women were. Where the clan mothers and the aunts were. And they dressed her and put the down of white winter birds in her hair. They painted the parting of her hair red. Her face they painted the color red, pocoon, and her hands they made patterns on, and on her ankles they made other patterns. Yellow Woman went among the elders, among all the holy people, even some of the wild men who frightened her. But she looked down or straight ahead. She remembered the chants and the steps of the dance. They were singing. They were talking. In that Big House, quioccosan. That holy House, quioccosan. The elders, the matchacómoco, were talking. They were honoring Fire with tobacco, apook. Generous hands gave apook. They sang. The ones who sang that way sang. Everyone was standing. There in the Great House, quioccosan. We honor you, Fire Man. We honor you Fire Woman. It is truth that is spoken here. It is truth that is done here. Thank you. The other women. Her sisters. Red woman. Black/Dark Blue Woman. White Woman. Standing in their places. They stood in the west. They stood in the east. They stepped this way. The stepped another way. They were standing. They were singing. It was a holy song they were singing. They were crying. That the supernaturals, manito, would hear them. That the holiest, manitt, would hear them. That they were standing in truth, oo-maa'ha'a. The voices rising. Yellow woman raising her voice. In the highest tremolo she was singing. She was singing. She was walking. She threw herself down. Down she threw herself. On the body of the stranger. On his body she fell. Singing in the highest tremolo. I will take this one and guide him. That's what I will do. It is the truth I speak Had Pocahontas been Laguna Pueblo and had she been a yellow corn woman and so part of the old cycle about the supernatural sisters -- red corn woman, yellow corn woman, blue/black corn woman, white corn woman -- this is how her story might have been told, in translation. As she was not Laguna Pueblo of the Keres Nation but Pamunkey, of the Powhatan Alliance, her story would have been told traditionally in the words and cadences of her people. Some of the words current among the people of the tsenacommacah I've added to this Keresan-based version. Laguna is not Werowocomoco, the town where Pocahontas was raised, and Powhatan was her language, not Keres. But then, modern Virginia bears little resemblance to the tsenacommacah she knew, and no one there spoke modern American English. She was of a time best thought of as world renewal time, world change time, or world transformation time; it's clear that this is so. The world we know bears only a marginal resemblance to the one she knew. Here in This Sacred Place I Stand As the spring equinox approached, Pocahontas knew it was time for her apowa, or Dream-Vision; it was several years before Captain John Smith even set foot on American soil, establishing with his Virginia Company the settlement at Jamestown. At midmorning she quietly stepped out of the longhouse where she lived -- a half-cylindrical structure made of bark and animal skins slashed to wooden frames ... Pocahontas Medicine Woman, Spy, Entrepreneur, Diplomat . Copyright © by Paula Gunn Allen. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold. Excerpted from Pocahontas: Medicine Woman, Spy, Entrepreneur, Diplomat by Paula Gunn Allen All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.