Saturday, February 13, 2016

For Valentine's Day: The ""Love Dance," John Smith, and Pocahontas

In 1608,  a "Love Dance" for John Smith and his men: 

Then the ceremony began: “thirtie young women came naked out of the woods, onely covered behind and before with a few green leaves, their bodies all painted, some of one colour, some of another, but all differing, their leader had a fayre payre of Bucks hornes on her head, and an Otters skinne at her girdle, and another at her arme, a quiver of arrowes at her backe, a bow and arrowes in her hand; the next had in her hand a sword, another a club, another a pot-sticke . . . .”
Thus adorned with paint of various colors usually reserved for men (red was a woman’s color, but men on occasion wore blue, black, and yellow as well as red) and armed in a mimicry of gender roles, from men’s hunting (the otter skins, bows and arrows) and warfare (the sword and club) to women’s cooking (the pot-stick), these young women  “cast themselves in a ring about the fire, singing and dauncing . . . .” After the dance, which lasted “near an hour,” was done, the young women invited Smith to their lodging, where, as he tells it, “all these Nymphes more tormented him then ever, crowding, pressing, and hanging about him, most tediously crying, Love you not me? love you not me?” Then there was a feast with more singing and dancing, and afterward, “with fire brands in stead of Torches they conducted him to his lodging.”
With this tantalizing conclusion, Smith leaves us to wonder what happened next. Where was Pocahontas? Smith’s earlier use of the phrase “Pocahontas and her women” could mean that Pocahontas was among the dancers. Were the other young women some of Powhatan’s many wives? Were Smith’s English companions also given this special treatment? And the most important question of all: in the absence of Powhatan, did Pocahontas and the other young women stage this ceremony for their own amusement?

If these young women designed their dance to flaunt their femininity before the Englishmen and to mock masculine prowess in hunting and fighting--the principal activities of Indian males--then this ceremony suggests not only Indian women’s awareness of the importance of gender roles, but a shrewd and subtle humor in the use of them. If Pocahontas had an adolescent crush on John Smith, she may have contrived to entertain him thus, and perhaps to flaunt her sexuality before him, without the constraints of her father’s presence.  Whatever the nature of their relationship, it was very close, and on one occasion Pocahontas risked her life to warn Smith and his men of a planned surprise attack on them by her father. 

--an excerpt from Virginia Bernhard, “Pocahontas Was Not the Only One: Indian Women and Their English Liaisons in Seventeenth-Century Virginia,” in Searching for Their Places: Women in the South Across Four Centuries, Thomas W. Appleton, Jr., and Angela Boswell, eds. (Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 2003).

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