Vassar Critical Journal

The Vassar College English Department Student Journal of Critical Essays

Within most hegemonic American historical narratives, captain John Smith appears as a central, but fairly two-dimensional character, abstracted into a fictional figure rather than acknowledged as a real man complicit in colonial violence. Upon examining his account of his brief captivity with the Powhatan peoples, however, one might begin to weave together a far more complex figure, whose narrativization of his experience displays a network of tensions quintessential to the American colonial project. In the poem “How to Write the Great American Indian Novel,” Sherman Alexie (Spokane/Coeur D’Alene) claims  “[i]n the Great American Indian novel, when it is finally written, all of the white people will be Indians and all of the Indians will be ghosts” (qtd. in Arvin et al. 12). Through literary tactics that both seek to appropriate a flattened sense of Indigeneity and erase real Indigenous peoples, Smith’s 1624 journal seems to offer a story that in many ways reflects Alexie’s depictions of how settler colonialism operates in America. Attempting to etch the Native peoples and ceremonies he encounters onto pages meant for white audiences, Smith begins a process of making Indigenous peoples into static, flat figures legible to the colonial eye. Furthermore, this attempt to “translate” Indigenous peoples into something easily consumable fuels the larger colonial project of settlers attempting to absorb an imagined Indigeneity and thus naturalize their claims to stolen land. Indeed, much of Smith’s work fortifies this project: throughout his journals, he begins to frame the appropriation of “the Other” as a viable path towards becoming “rightfully American,” and furthers this justification for continued colonization by positioning an Indigenous woman (Pocahontas) as a bridge between himself and the land. 

            In placing his interactions with Indigenous peoples on pages intended for widespread British distribution, Smith begins to cement the individuals he encounters into fixed figures whose flattened identities can be known, claimed, and consumed by white audiences. In great detail, he records his time awaiting judgment with his captors, noting: 

They began their song again, and then another oration, ever laying down so many corns as before till they had twice encircled the fire; that done, they took a bunch of little sticks prepared for that purpose, continuing still their devotion, and at the end of every song and oration, they laid down a stick between the divisions of corn…Three days they used this ceremony; the meaning whereof, they told him, was to know if he intended them well or no. The circle of meal signified their country, the circles of corn the bounds of the sea, and the sticks his country. They imagined the world to be flat and round, like a trencher, and they in the midst. (11)

The repetition and movement of the ceremony itself pulses with a dynamism that resists capture on a page, but with matter of fact language attempting to scientifically record some of the Powhatan peoples’ rituals and epistemologies, Smith seeks to flatten the ceremony into a linear procession of events. Inés Hernandez-Avila (Nimiipuu/Nez Perce) describes “the oral tradition and our memory as the way to survive, as the way to continue as a people” (79). The rituals that Smith records operate with a degree of physicality, movement, and interaction that cannot translate onto paper, and in writing them down, he violently rips those ceremonies from their contexts and leeches them of meaning. 

Writing also allows Smith to pursue his colonial desire to capture his surroundings in their totality. In describing his first encounter with Powhatan, he states (referring to himself in the third person):

[O]n the one [mat] they caused him to sit, and all the guard went out of the house, and presently came skipping in a great grim fellow all painted over with coal mingled with oil, and many snakes’ and weasels’ skins stuffed with moss, and all their tails tied together so as they met on the crown on his head in a tassel, and round about the tassel was as a coronet of feathers, the skins hanging round about his head, back, and shoulders and in a manner covered his face, with a hellish voice and a rattle in his hand. (11)

Through this depiction, Smith seems to map out each part of the man’s body, digesting it through his Euro-American gaze, and inscribing it into his journal. The act indeed recalls a kind of colonial map-making that one may find in explorer diaries—breaking up land (or a body) into pieces, placing it within one’s own vocabulary, and then claiming it. Furthermore, through placing Indigenous individuals on a page as wholly known, easily consumable figures, Smith seeks to excuse or erase any violence committed against them. A caricature confined to text does not bleed, and the violence committed against that figure is not an atrocity like the murder and mutilation of a real person. 

In another attempt to place Indigenous peoples within a settler vocabulary (and thus, more easily control them), Smith continually attempts to translate his experiences in captivity into Euro-American concepts. For instance, he observes, “But arriving at the town (which was but only thirty or forty hunting houses made of mats, which they remove as they please, as we our tents)… the soldiers first all in file preformed the form of a bissom so well as could be, and on each flank, officers as sergeants to see them keep their orders” (11). Immediately, upon encountering a structure with which he is not familiar, Smith compares it to something within his vernacular (a tent). To the European reader, this definition holds an array of connotations that can shape his/her/their understandings of Indigenous communities and nations. In calling these structures tents, he imbues them with an air of impermanence, which remains antithetical to European notions of land ownership and property. Therefore, through (mis)placing Indigenous housing structures within a European vocabulary, Smith signifies to his European audience that land could be better placed for exploitation exploited in settler hands. Later in this account, Smith continues his attempt to transform Native peoples into entities that simplistically fit within a European worldview when he refers to his guards as “officers and sergeants.” This process of translation fuels (and is fueled by) colonial attempts to leave no part of “the New World” unexplored or unknown. After rendering individuals, peoples, and epistemologies legible to the white eye, Smith can begin to assuage the fear of the unknown “Other” that exists within the colonial imaginary, and thus facilitate the appropriation and genocidal erasure of Indigenous peoples.

While Smith’s depictions of his time in captivity consistently fail to recognize the subjectivities and honor the epistemologies of Indigenous peoples, his attitudes towards them throughout the journal hold a great degree of ambivalence. Emblematic of a prevailing colonial literary tradition in America, he harbors a distinct fear of becoming, as well as a powerful desire to become, the “Other.” One can trace hints of anxiety about Indigeneity “tainting” English “purity” throughout the text. For instance, after Smith returns to Jamestown following his captivity, he notes that “Some [other white settlers]… had plotted with the President the next day to have him put to death by the Levitical law, for the lives of Robinson and Emry, pretending the fault was his that had led them to their ends” (13). Captivity has transformed Smith into an unknown, and thus, frightening, untrustworthy figure. Smith himself seems inclined to confirm the notion of his own transformation, yet, he continually suggests that “savage” traits can live safely within his white body—indeed, his proximity to “Indigeneity” grants him a uniquely American identity that positions him as a rightful owner of the land. In a description of his time before meeting Powhatan, he records “Till night, neither he nor they did either eat or drink, and then they [presumably including Smith] feasted merrily with the best provisions they could make” (12). His inclusion with the Indigenous peoples in this passage signifies what he perceives as a slow transition into becoming “Native” and calls upon a kind of settler adoption fantasy that becomes even more apparent later in the text. 

The episode Smith describes in which he narrowly avoids execution serves as a particularly striking example of tensions settlers harbor towards perceived Indigeneity. Smith writes of the event, again speaking of himself in the third person, “Then as many as could, laid hands on him, dragged him to them, and thereon laid his head and being ready with their clubs to beat out his brains” (12). One might look to the scholarship of Helen Rountree before attempting to disentangle the significations of this phrase. She states that “[Smith] wrote three separate accounts of [his captivity] that differ from one another in significant ways” (17). Upon close examination of Smith’s 1624 journals, she surmises, “The death to be meted out to Smith was the wrong kind. The Powhatans brained their own people who committed heinous crimes, but they slowly tortured foreign enemies. The first kind of death was inappropriate because of Smith’s ethnicity, the second because of the priests’ pronouncement” (18). Accepting her conclusion that Smith concocted this entire execution narrative, his motives become an area worthy of exploration. While his claim that the Powhatan peoples intended to “beat out his brains” might have stemmed from a simple misunderstanding of their customs, the particular nature of this death rings significant. The phrasing “beat out his brains” seems to reflect a colonial anxiety about Indigenous peoples destroying “reason”—Indigeneity, within this framework, poses an inherent threat to the “civilized” white body. However, this sense of prevailing through struggle with the “wild” (embodied by Native peoples) and eventually dominating that wilderness signifies the creation of a uniquely American individual; indeed, why would Smith write the conflict into existence if it could not fortify his newfound American spirit? The whole encounter can be metaphorically: Smith can either “become Indigenous” himself, adapting to his new American identity, or die at the hands of Powhatan—like a true American, he chooses to appropriate a flattened sense of Indigeneity. After becoming “Indigenous,” the land he stands on is no longer stolen, but appears as his rightful “property.” The following passages that detail Smith’s “adoption” into Powhatan’s tribe only further the violent notion that upon prevailing through his trial (the execution), Smith is able to successfully become Indigenous and thus has been given permission to colonize. 

Much like Smith’s “adoption,” Pocahontas serves as an important literary tool in Smith’s journal for his implicit justification for land theft. Her character remains perhaps the most striking in his story. Expanding upon the earlier passage, Smith details:

Then as many as could, laid hands on him, dragged him to them, and thereon laid his head and being ready with their clubs to beat out his brains, Pocahontas, the King’s dearest daughter, when no entreaty could prevail, got his head in her arms and laid her own upon his to save him from death, whereat the Emperor was contented he should live to make him hatchets, and her bells, beads, and copper, for they thought him as well of all occupations as themselves. (12)

Again, Helen Rountree’s studies provide access to a clearer examination of Pocahontas’ role in Smith’s life. She notes that “Smith’s 1624 version, written by Smith for publication after the 1622 Powhatan assault on the colony, was the only one that featured the rescue by Pocahontas,” and goes on to state, “Powhatan probably did not threaten Smith’s life directly at any point, as Smith claimed. In other words, Pocahontas probably did not save Smith’s life, because, aside from her own tenuous position with her father, Smith most likely did not need any saving” (18). Upon this discovery that Pocahontas’ role in Smith’s execution remains merely literary, one must again interrogate his decision to incorporate her as well as explore the purpose she serves within the narrative he seeks to create.

Within Smith’s story, Pocahontas becomes a physical barrier between Smith and death, and more importantly, a mediating space between him and the other Native peoples surrounding them. Contributing to a longstanding colonial tradition (as with figures like Sacagawea and La Malinche) Smith throwsher body down as a bridge between peoples—a bridge over which he can trample to access “the New World.” In “Theorizing Indigeneity, Gender, and Settler Colonialism,” Shelbi Nahwilet Meissner (Luiseño and Cupeño) and Kyle Whyte (Potawatomi) argue that “As part of the settler project to successfully indigenize settlers and their descendents as rightful owners and occupants of stolen land, settlers destroy and redefine the identities of Indigenous women…Colonial logic codes Indigenous lands and bodies as objects for the taking” (159). Following this framework, Smith reduces Pocahontas to a pathway to acceptance within her tribe, and thus, he renders her a mere point of access to land. After she saves him, in fact, his epic story details a neat “resolution” to the conflict between Native peoples and settlers; his acceptance into the tribe and continual permission to trade with Powhatan’s people suggest that after receiving Pocahontas’ “blessing,” Smith can continue the colonial project without guilt. 

In her poem Indios, Linda Hogan (Chickasaw) seems to speak directly to Smith, clutching his static portrait of Pocahontas and muddying the picture’s clean edges. Her piece, with a destabilized sense of time that places the narrator both within the world of first contact and modern day, serves as a personal testimony of an Indigenous woman (Indios) who recounts the history of her colonization. She exclaims, “I was in between / I was, I am the continental divide. / I am the collision of continents / Contained in the silence of a body” (15). Her body, equated to land within a colonial framework, serves as a passive site of violence through which settlers can extract resources; through placing Pocahontas between his head and her father’s axe, Smith violently thrusts her into the same liminal space as Indios. Furthermore, the phrase “contained in the silence of a body” also speaks to Pocahontas’ canonical narrativization. Her roots and complex identity, formed through a web of connections with her extended kin, become invisible within Smith’s framework. She exists solely in relation to him, and in a violent act of erasure, becomes nothing but a colonial tool justifying Smith’s rightful place on stolen land. 

Whether intentional or not, Smith’s journals sketch the blueprints to an American literary tradition that continues to seek to justify land theft and genocide. While Smith’s colonial messaging pervades dominant American cultural discourse, narratives that counter his flattening, violent gaze have also existed since first contact. One might begin to destabilize hegemonic colonial narratives by looking to Indigenous authors like Hogan for American “origin stories” rather than Smith—authors who have begun to write themselves into existence in all of their complexity and on their own terms. 

Works Cited

  • Arvin, Maile, et al. “Decolonizing Feminism: Challenging Connections between Settler Colonialism and Heteropatriarchy.” Feminist Formations, vol. 25, no. 1, 2013, pp. 8–34., doi:10.1353/ff.2013.0006.
  • Hernandez-Avila, Inés. “America in 1492: A Native American Woman’s Perspective.” Columbus, Confrontation, Christianity: the European-American Encounter Revisited: Essays from the Santa Clara University Columbus Quincentennial Institute, Autumn 1992, by Timothy J. O’Keefe, Forbes Mill Press, 1994, pp. 72–85.
  • Hogan, Linda. Indios: A Poem… a Performance. Wings Press, 2012.
  • Meissner, Shelbi Nahwilet, and Kyle Whyte. “Theorizing Indigeneity, Gender, and Settler Colonialism.” The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Race, 2017, pp. 152–167., doi:10.4324/9781315884424-12.
  • “Proceedings and Accidents of the English Colony in Virginia.” The General History of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles, by John Smith.
  • Rountree, Helen C. “Pocahontas: The Hostage Who Became Famous.” Sifters Native American Women’s Lives, by Theda Perdue, Oxford University Press, 2001, pp. 14–27.

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