Images of Pocahontas have been used in everything from coffee to beer to insurance. But a new exhibit at the Jamestown Settlement in Virginia hopes to shine a light on the young woman and her enduring legacy.
Pocahontas Imagined runs through January 28, 2018. The special exhibition includes a timeline of Pocahontas’ life, though the focus of the exhibit is art-based and shows how the image of this real Powhatan Indian girl has inspired the imaginations of artists, writers and others for 400 years, said Pam Pettengell, director, Programs and Partnerships at the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.
Pocahontas, born about 1596, was the daughter of Powhatan, supreme chief of more than 30 tribes in coastal Virginia. She converted to Christianity and married Englishman John Rolfe. Several years later, she became ill and died at Gravesend, England, in March 1617.
Since then, she has become a symbol of successful colonization, and her image has been used to sell a plethora of products.
“In life and in death, Pocahontas has been stripped of her personal identity,” Pettengell said. “Although fascination with her endures, over time her image has been constantly manipulated by society to reflect itself and to suit its needs. For some, she has become little more than a caricature. But Pocahontas was a real Powhatan Indian girl with a story far more complex. We hope visitors will leave wanting to learn more about this brave and remarkable woman.”
Asked why Pocahontas’ story has endured, Pettengell said many have tried to answer that question. “Working at a history museum, I can say that people who visit Jamestown Settlement, almost without exception, have heard of Pocahontas, and there seems to be many reasons that she’s captured imaginations through time,” she said.
Pettengell said Pocahontas was seen as an intermediary between the English and Powhatan Indians, and an important symbol for the English who kidnapped her. “She was baptized and married John Rolfe, and for many she represents the joining of two cultures,” Pettengell said. “Their marriage brought a period of peace between the English and Powhatan Indians. She is seen as a celebrity and diplomat as she traveled to England and met the King. Her tragic death at the age of 22 leaves people wondering ‘what if?’ All of this contributes to her enduring story.”
The exhibition features artwork, memorabilia, advertisements and interactive displays. Visitors to a special children’s area will learn about Pocahontas’ life as a little girl in a Powhatan Indian village. Art-related activities, such as weaving, decorating clay pots on a chalkboard wall, and learning about hunting and gathering, will also be on hand for visitors.
A public lecture series will feature talks by three different experts.
On September 5, Karen Sherry, an art historian and former curator of American art for the Portland Museum of Art in Maine and associate curator of art at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, will give a lecture titled Pocahontas in Image and Myth. The lecture will explore representations of Pocahontas ranging from 17th century prints to the late 20th-century Disney movie.
The following week, on September 13, Jeffry Allison will present Reel Indian: The Portrayal of Native Americans in Film, which will examine the portrayal of American Indians in silent films, international depictions, Hollywood and Native American-directed films.
Allison is the Paul Mellon Collection Educator and Statewide Manager at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
Finally, the public lecture series will conclude on October 3 with Johanna Minich, adjunct curator of Native American Art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, presenting Corrective Lens: Native Women Photographers and the Debunking of the ‘Vanishing Race’ Myth. The talk will focus on the work of women photographers and what it means to be indigenous in the 21st century.
The special exhibit, which opened in July, complements Jamestown Settlement permanent gallery exhibits about Pocahontas and Virginia Indians in the 17th century and historical interpretation in an outdoor re-creation of a Powhatan Indian village, Pettengell said.