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Pocahontas as Rebecka

“Hers is a story we tell ourselves about America—a founding mother who still defines us.”

Most American children grow up watching Disney’s Pocahontas and associate Pocahontas with the love story depicted between her and John Smith. This fictionalized story has captivated our collective imagination since the very founding of this country — her saving of John Smith is quite literally depicted in a frieze inside the dome of the Capitol Rotunda, the very heart of American democracy. But who was she really and why do we put so much stock in the myth of Pocahontas as the Nation’s Princess and John Smith’s savior?

Pocahontas

These are questions that are explored in Pocahontas: Beyond the Myth which premieres tonight, Monday, March 27th, 8 p.m. ET/PT on the Smithsonian Channel.

Starting with Pocahontas as a child and moving through her life and the events surrounding her, the documentary is concerned with both sussing out the lived story of this now mythic figure and trying to understand how this myth continued to define us as a nation. She may or may not have saved John Smith, but she saved the colony more than once, first as a translator who brought food to the settlers, then again as a bargaining chip for the colonists who captured her, and finally through her marriage to John Rolfe, which ushered in an era of peace and prosperity. 

There is much debate about her — was she a double agent? Did she betray her people? Was her marriage to Rolfe one of love or simply political strategy? —  but regardless of her unknowable interior life, Pocahontas’s lived experiences provide a roadmap for our nation's self-figuring, becoming a touchstone in debates as diverse as the Kidnapping of Patty Hearst and the notion of Stockholm Syndrome to the Supreme Court Case Loving vs. Virginia, which ended the ban on interracial marriage. 

The Smithsonian's deft approach to unpacking her legacy is the kind of historical interpretation this country is sorely in need of!  

Images via The Library of Congressflickr

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