Linda Grover: Matoaka was her name

Four hundred years ago, an encounter between a 12-year-old native girl and a group of English colonists who were settling the Chesapeake Bay area created a chain of historical events that touch us to this day. The girl's name was Matoaka; her fat...

Four hundred years ago, an encounter between a 12-year-old native girl and a group of English colonists who were settling the

Chesapeake Bay area created a chain of historical events that touch us to this day.

The girl's name was Matoaka; her father was Powhatan, leader of an alliance of more than 25 Algonquian Indian tribes. In grade school we learned about her as "Pocahontas," which was a sort of childhood nickname given to Matoaka because she was spirited and playful.

I was introduced to Pocahontas by Miss Johnson, the first-grade teacher at the old Kenwood school, during storytime. Your memory of storytime is probably just like mine: Children sat on the floor in a half-circle, and the teacher sat on a chair turning pages as she read upside-down so that we could see the pictures.

Miss Johnson, who had a very pleasant voice, read us many books. I remember well "The Boxcar Children", and Eddie with his big deals, but most of all the book about Pocahontas, with its lovely


pictures of Indian families and life during the early 1600s.

Before she began the story, Miss Johnson showed us the cover, a watercolor drawing of an Indian girl in a white feather dress, surrounded by sunflowers and morning glories.

She was pretty, her hair long, and the drawing really did look like an actual young Indian girl: my cousin Brenda (whom I named my first daughter after). In my memory, that was the first time that anything at all concerning American Indians was included in the classroom (the bizarre and unsettling Thanksgiving unit would soon follow, but that is a story for another time). I peeked at Miss Johnson at least 20 times during the story, smiling and feeling special because, in my mind, I thought she might have picked out that book just for me!

"Pocahontas" is a large, beautifully illustrated book by Ingri and Edgar Parin d'Aulaire, published in 1946 and still available in paperback today (my husband, Tim, bought me a copy when he saw it in the bookstore). The d'Aulaire version of Matoaka's story does contain some, but not numerous, historical inaccuracies. More than that, however, some of the language is harsh and insensitive. For example, her father is described as "ugly and cruel," and the women are referred to by an unacceptable name that we Anishinaabeg people never, ever use and, therefore, I won't here, either.

Today, I would recommend this book not so much for children but more for people like me, who like the illustrations and have fond memories of storytime and being a little Indian girl admiring brave and pretty Pocahontas, who looked like Brenda. If you buy it and read it aloud to little children, you will want to modify some of the language.

In 1995, 400 years after Matoaka was born, Disney released a musical animated version of her story, the full-length children's film "Pocahontas."

Disney's "Pocahontas" is accurate in showing how James Fort (Jamestown) and the native village life would have looked, and I especially like the relationships between Pocahontas and her father, grandmother and friends. The movie is lovely to look at, the language has been cleaned up and the music is catchy -- it appeals to children, certainly.

However, much of the movie is over-the-top silly and carelessly, perhaps sometimes deliberately, erroneous. Several important historical facts have been changed or ignored for the sake of a romantic plot.


The story about Matoaka rescuing John Smith may or may not be true. If it is true, it happened when she was perhaps 12 years old. The cartoon Pocahontas is a grown woman who runs around very wildly and rather immodestly, through forests and fields, over lakes and waterfalls, in a sort of off-the-shoulder mini skirt outfit.

In the movie, John Smith and Pocahontas were smitten with one another, and he was a young, handsome fellow. In truth, Smith was much older than Matoaka, and they had no romantic relationship.

As a teenager, Matoaka was betrothed to a young man named Kocoum, but, while in British captivity, she fell in love with John Rolfe, whom she married in 1614. The marriage, which was desired by the Englishmen of the Virginia Company and consented to by Powhatan, brought a period of peace between the Indian people and the English that lasted for some time.

Matoaka's English name became Rebecca Rolfe. In 1616, she traveled to England with her husband and their little son, Thomas, as part of a delegation of Algonquian Indians and Englishmen seeking financial support for the Virginia Company.

She had her portrait painted wearing English-style clothing of the time. By her portrait we can see only that she was beautiful, and young. We cannot see how she felt.

Matoaka lived for only a decade after meeting John Smith and the colonists.

In 1617, at the beginning of her return voyage home with her husband and little boy, Matoaka became gravely ill with a respiratory infection. Taken off the ship to be nursed,the young mother died in England, without seeing her beloved homeland and family again. Her father, the great leader Powhatan, died the following spring. Rolfe returned to America with their son and went into the tobacco business.

There are nearly 100,000 people today, all over the world, who are descendants


of Matoaka.

Linda LeGarde Grover is a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth, and a member of the Bois Forte Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. Grover writes once a month for the Budgeteer.

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