Growing up as kids in the United States public school system one thing is for certain and that is you will at some point be indoctrinated into the American Mythos of how the country likes to remember our national story. Everyone has the childhood memory of dressing up like Pilgrims and “Indians” reenacting the first Thanksgiving dinner in elementary school classroom plays. I intentionally use the term “Indian” because I honestly don’t have any memory of my elementary school teachers using the more appropriate term of Native American or First Nation People. Nevertheless most people have fond memories of the “Good Indian” thrust upon us at an early age be it in the image of Squanto teaching the Pilgrims how to plant crops, or Pocahontas rescuing John Smith and helping the people of Jamestown survive. Indeed the image of the “Good Indian” has been etched in our minds because we all grew up watching the Disney movie Pocahontas. The “Good Indian” is essential to how America would like to remember itself. It would be years later when I would realize that these popular narratives played over and over again in classrooms or on movie screens are more myth than actual fact. It makes me ask the question if these stories are either overly simplified, or in some cases just straight up lies what is the need for it, and what purpose does the “Good Indian” or “Bad Indian” for that matter serve?
I realized that characters like Pocahontas and Squanto serve to justify the very existence of the United States. They are usefully placed as a sort of moral judge and jury of the United States, and the essential message is that if foreign people like Pocahontas and Squanto felt the need to help the European settlers colonize then it must be a symbol of our divine right to create a great nation like the United States. Pocahontas and Squanto serve to erase any of the sins that the United States may have committed as the nation inevitably marched on to greatness, and there were truly many sins that needed atonement from the Sand Creek Massacre to the Wounded Knee Massacre, but the original sin may have been the story of Pocahontas and Squanto in and of itself.
We were taught that Pocahontas had a romance with John Smith and even rescued him from murder by the hands of her father Powhatan. These events most certainly never happened and were later embellishments by John Smith for political use. At the time Pocahontas would have been 10 years old and John Smith age 27. In any event a 27 year old man sleeping with a 10 year old girl is not the way the nation would like to remember their past, so Disney solved this apparent problem by quickly making Pocahontas a grown woman with hips and breast. Some historians might be prone to admit that Pocahontas did not marry John Smith freely admitting that she married John Rolfe; however, what many fail to leave out was that Pocahontas during the time of her marriage was a captive or slave.
The English settlers captured Pocahontas as a way to safe guard themselves from attacks from the Powhatan tribe. Of course the Powhatan or any Native American tribe for that matter would have been well within their rights for attacking any European colonist because it would only have been a way to prevent their land from being stolen. Just imagine if a foreign nation like China decided to colonize Florida how might President Obama or Trump react? We are taught that Pocahontas went to England and has a baby with John Rolfe, and on a journey back to Virginia she became sick and died. Native Americans record a different version of this story. According to Native American oral tradition Pocahontas did not die from sickness but she was poisoned by the English when they no longer had a political need for her.
The story of Squanto really is no better than the story of Pocahontas. Most school children are not told that when Squanto was a child he was a slave captured by Europeans. During his enslavement he learned the language of the Europeans something that would later render him useful. Before the arrival of the Pilgrims to Massachusetts Squanto’s whole tribe was wiped out by a plague brought on by European diseases. Some have convincingly argued that celebrations of this plague by the early settlers is the true origin of the Thanksgiving celebration. Squanto’s experience living among both the Europeans and the Native Americans allowed him to serve as both an aid and interpreter. It is because of this that Squanto is propped up as a “Good Indian” because he easily fits into the divine right mythos that attempts to justify colonization; however, what many are not aware of is that many Native Americans at the time did not trust Squanto. They viewed Squanto as a sell-out someone who is not trustworthy because he aided the Pilgrims. They correctly questioned where Squanto’s loyalties lie. An alternative theory about Squanto’s death is that he did not merely die from a fever but was poisoned by Native Americans who viewed Squanto as a tool used to aid Europeans in the stealing of Native People’s land. Indeed apprehension about the presence and intention of the Pilgrims would bear true the same Native American tribes who aided the Pilgrims would be wiped out and sold into slavery some 50 years later in what came to be known as King Philips War.
To conclude many of these warts and blemishes are left out of our national narrative intentionally because if they were included history becomes a bitter pill to swallow, so what we are left with is hollow fictional stories of “Good Indians,” cozy elementary school plays, and beautiful picturesque Walt Disney movies. The need to continue to use Pocahontas and Squanto in a dishonest way speaks less about where we are going as a nation and more about where we are actually at. Until we are honest about the lives of Pocahontas and Squanto and are willing to celebrate “Bad Indians” like Tecumseh, Crazy Horse, and Sitting Bull our childhood experience in American classrooms and popular culture at large will continue to be more about American Mythos and less about actual history.
Angela L. Daniel and Linwood Custalow. The True Story of Pocahontas. 2007. Fulcrum Publishing.
Howard Zinn. A Peoples History Of The Unites States. 1980. HarperCollins.
James W. Loewen. Lies My Teacher Told Me. 1995. Touchstone.
Dee Brown. Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee. 1970. Holt, Rinehart & Winston.