Book Review – Pocahontas – Medicine Woman, Spy, Entrepreneur, Diplomat


When I was a little boy, my grandmother told me that we were descendants of Pocahontas. The idea aroused my fantasies. Having Indian blood was a special blessing. It endowed me with certain spiritual qualities, psychic perceptiveness and magical abilities – in my imagination. Later I was disappointed to learn that it was fashionable among past generations to claim a blood tie to Pocahontas. I suspected my grandmother’s story was of this origin.

Much later I realized that a fascination with things Native American was a symptom of a certain affinity. I valued the Indian fantasy as a call of the wild from within. It was to be answered, but in my own, indigenous terms, not in terms borrowed from other cultures. I recently read a book that has added great depth to this perspective.

Pocahontas: Medicine Woman, Spy, Entrepreneur, Diplomat (HarperSanFrancisco), by Paula Gunn Allen, Ph.D., tells an entirely different history of this American icon from the one we cherish. This award-winning author, a retired professor from UCLA, credited with originating Native American literary studies, has taken the usual sources, plus those rarely referred to, and reinterpreted the data within the context of the Native American mythical worldview. The result is a fascinating account of the transformation of “Turtle Island” into “America the Beautiful.”

Dr. Gunn Allen begins by explaining the spirit-centered worldview of the Native American at that time. The “manito aki,” which pertains to the supernatural, paranormal, spiritinhabited world, was the Native Americans’ waking reality, more real to them than the physical world.

We might say that they were good “Jungians” at that time, because they respected the experiences of the imagination as real and worthy of attention. The natives at that time also realized that their world was coming to an end. Their calendars and mythologies had prepared them. The coming of the white men was part of the fulfillment of this prophecy.

Evidence points to the fact that Pocahontas was a high priestess, initiated into the mysteries of the spirit world and charged with responsibility to these spirits. Based upon her evidence, the author came to the startling conclusion that Pocahontas, rather than falling in love with Captain John Smith, was actually on a preplanned mission taking advantage of him as an unwitting pawn. Her objective: to insure that the spirit of tobacco would find a home in the new world. Tobacco spirit, the essential shamanic power of the Native American world, needed to find a way to be a part of the coming materialistic world that was being born. This mission was crucial if the spirit of the native world was to survive destruction of its manifest existence.

Pocahontas was the channel by which the transfer of power was achieved. Pocahontas’s connection with John Smith was the means by which native spirituality was preserved, even though it would have to hide for centuries within a plant that would be marketed, traded, consumed, and vilified within a purely materialistic consciousness, until such time as this ancient spirituality could one day be reborn in the awareness of the European mindset, as is beginning to happen today.

What is this newly emerging mindset? Gunn Allen writes, ” … the construction of Pocahontas in American thought, while often historically inaccurate, is an indication that the imagination of America is as connected to the manito aki as it is to the land. The problem that Americans face in harmonizing our modern American consciousness with the ancient psyche of the land we inhabit is the dominance of a paradigm that assumes material, measurable existence to be all there is.”

The lesson for us is to respect the intuitive nature of the Timagination. We need to experience and to understand the imagination as a channel of intuitive realities. The mind and its ambassador, the imagination, is quite real although it inhabits a different plane of existence than the world the senses recognize. It is real because it makes a difference in our lives. It is in this realm of the imagination that we can find our highest ideals, that we intuit our interconnectedness as spiritual beings, that we encounter non-material beings, and discover the patterns in the creative forces that shape our lives. Our fascination with all things Native American is evidence of our connection to this non-material world. Yet this connection is something that sadly we do not recognize within ourselves, but project onto these indigenous peoples. Gunn Allen reconnects us with our heritage. She joins us in gratitude to the people who came before us, who built a spiritual time capsule that would survive the materialistic, destructive stage of our history, preserving for the future our endowment as spirit’s children. Pocahontas is truly America’s godmother.

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