#Nastywomanwriter Paula Gunn Allen (1939-2008) sets the record straight about another #nastywoman from history in her book Pocahontas: Medicine woman, Spy, Entrepreneur, Diplomat

Gunn Allen rescues Pocahontas (childhood name) Matoaka (adult name) Amonute (medicine woman name) Rebecca (Christian name) from the story told and sold about her and in so doing opens the setting of this story wide and large enough to include the reality, place, time and belief systems of all the players involved.

The Powhatan Alliance (people of the Dream-Vision), the loosely allied group of 30-35 Algonquin speaking tribes settled in what we now call Chesapeake Bay, then known as tsenocommacah, (the tidewater area of what is now called Virginia), “were matrilocal, matrilineal and matrifocal”(6).

Pocahontas was a priestess, a medicine woman whose birth had been foretold. She worked with and listened to the manito (spirits)  and was deeply embedded in the manito aki (spirit world/implicate order). Born in the Mattaponi/Pamunkey tribes, both part of the Powhatan Alliance around 1596, she died in Gravesend, England in 1617.

In 1500, prophecy foretold of the end of the tsenocommacah and of a spirit woman to be born. In 1596 Matoaka was born, signs pointed to it being her. In 1603 she received her powa (Dream-Vision) of John Smith.


When Pocahontas threw her body over John Smith’s at the mid-winter feast of Nikomis it was to indicate he was the one she had seen in her powa (Dream-Vision) and that he was to be remade as an Indian and become one of them (not because she was in love with him as the fairy tale goes). Being remade was traditional  practice. When Pocahontas was baptized by the Christians she would have viewed that as being remade to them. For the Powhatans, remaking someone was a way to integrate them into their culture with the hope of creating alliances between two divergent and vying groups to help assure continued peace and harmonious living for their people.

It was a diplomatic act brought about by and from the manito aki. With his being remade, Smith was given title and privilege. Pocahontas continued to look after him and his men, including bringing food when they were starving, to assure the success of this ritual prescribed by her powa. Smith reneged on his obligations (it is not clear he actually even fully understood them, or what had happened to him, although it is true that Pocahontas felt betrayed by him and told him so when she saw him in her visit to England years later) and left tsenocommacah without telling her.

Pocahontas had to find a new man to remake. She found another English man whom she married: John Rolfe. Pocahontas taught him how to grow the crop that would sell around the globe: Virginia Tobacco, and together they created an empire.

Gunn Allen describes the life of Pocahontas as being “manito directed”(95). “Any biography of a Powhatan woman or man from earlier eras must include the assumption that this world we live in is  by its nature a Dream-Vision. It must assume that the manito are the greater Dreamers, the humans the lesser—the manito aki—location of the Dream-Vision as it takes shape and gains sufficient “thrust” to move into our more physically dense reality”(20).

Gunn Allen attempts to write in a way that honors the oral tradition of a people. She explains that she cannot tell this story without including the spiritual context of the Algonquin speaking people, because to leave that out is to not tell the story. Allowing the reader into this part of the story in a way that is not trivializing or dismissive, Gunn Allen gifts to the reader the lens and perspective of the people who lived in tsenocommacah and their attempt to understand and integrate these invaders, these people they had been told would come and eventually destroy them. 

“In native traditional life stories, the subject of the biography—or, often, autobiography—is situated within the entire life system: that community of living things, geography, climate, spirit people, and supernaturals . . .Thus, I am basing my narrative on several assumptions: that manito—a complicated word that relates to paranormal, supernatural and transcendent conditions of consciousness, existence, and event—is reality. I am also assuming the reality of the manito aki, spirit world or realm where supernatural live and where the laws of physics are distinct from ours”(2-4).

Gunn Allen draws on the concepts of theoretical physicist David Bohm to help her explain the manito and manito aki. “Bohm’s description of the consciousness form we usually engage in as “explicate” and the alternate as “implicate” corresponds neatly with the categories of material world and manito aki, the mortal realm and Faerie. The state of awareness when one is communicating with this realm was long identified as Dream-Vision, or powa, in the Algonquin world”(21).

I was not sure this ambitious attempt was going to work but by the end of the book, I felt it was highly successful.

Also a scholar of English Literature, Gunn Allen creates historical context by educating the reader about the English colonists who came to tsenocommacah: their world view, dreams and aspirations. They were not as we or the English are today. We must not project that onto them when we consider or tell this story. The English of that time believed in angels and ghosts and elemental beings: Faerie. This was before the industrial and scientific revolutions. This took place during the religious revolutions on the European continent.

Pocahontas was a contemporary of William Shakespeare, spiritualist John Dee, Sir Francis Drake and Sir Francis Bacon. She met many of them during her time in England, even attending Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, which was based on the story of of the shipwreck that her husband, John Rolfe survived in the Bahamas, losing his daughter and wife.

It is an absolutely compelling book, chock full of information, history, mythology, and a reweaving of the tapestry of this story like never before. The reader feels information clicking, moving, readjusting and falling into place in their mind as they read it.

Gunn Allen allows the reader into the psyche of the woman Pocahontas (not a traitor to her people at all) and her efforts to mitigate circumstances for her people after the prophecy was revealed. Pocahontas worked with the manito to help life remain viable for tsenocommacah. The Peace of Pocahontas lasted some five years after her marriage to Rolfe. Had she not died, it may have lasted longer and she would have risen to be leader of the Powhatan Alliance. This is how powerful and esteemed this woman was.

“Apook” is the Algonquin word for tobacco, one of the sacred plants grown from the body of the First Mother along with corn, squash and beans. Abenaki legend tells of a time of starvation, when the First Mother told the people to sacrifice her and bury her body in a field, out of which, seven months later, grew these sacred plants which fed the starving people. The food items grew from her flesh. The tobacco grew from her bones and held her consciousness within it.

“She also made a gift of her bones (apook, tobacco) to you for your good. When you burn them the smoke will make your minds fresh. Most of all, remember that these gifts came out of the goodness of a woman’s heart. Honor her memory always; remember her when you eat and whenever the smoke of her bones rises in your sight. Remember that you are all related to her and to each other, and apportion her flesh and her bones equally among you. As long as you do, the love of the First Mother will keep you strong and peaceful in your hearts and in all you do”(200).

There was a sacred way to grow tobacco and it is this that Pocahontas taught John Rolfe who was in “possession of the golden seeds of the Spanish-grown Tobacco,” but did not know how to grow it.

“Out of their alliance came the new paradigm that formed the United States and the world we know today. For upon the cultivation and distribution of tobacco rested the rise of the English to world domination; further, the tobacco produced from the union of Powhatan and the English, medicine woman and alchemist, soon became the dominant variety distributed to a global market”(203).

With the spread of this plant across the planet, the consciousness of the First Mother grew and spread and its message is still being metabolized by the world population today, the consciousness of liberty, freedom, sovereignty—equality.

“Among the Algonquin, apook was seen as the path to the mind of First Woman—the supernatural female progenitrix of the Algonquin, according to one of their major powa traditions. . . Apook emanated from her  bones in one version of this tradition, and from her head in another. As itself, given its great power to instruct and remake humans, apook was itself manito, a mystery. It was (and among many traditional medicine people still is) recognized as an agent of vision, of transformation, change, healing, orientation, teleportation of objects, creating (making something from nothing), soul walking—or perhaps all of these. No ceremony was attempted without its plentiful use. No state of proper alignment of mind-body, with spirit-manito was thought possible in its absence. It was as much the flesh of the ceremony, the joining of human and manito into a state of powwaw, shared consciousness, as incantation, movement, or any of the other liturgical elements of the formal rite“(209).

Pocahontas by Paula Gunn Allen is an amazing retelling of history, what actually happened and still is happening: the global fight for freedom and equal rights for all peoples, which, according to Gunn Allen, is the continued reverberation of the meeting of these two cultures and the spread of the Native American beliefs across the globe.

A ground breaking work in so many ways. I encourage everyone to read it.

Paula Gunn Allen

“Paula Gunn Allen, Laguna, Sioux and Lebanese American, was a writer, feminist, activist and professor of American and Indian Studies and a leader in bringing Native Studies to the forefront and into proper context.

In the 1960s, when some in academia still denied the existence of Native American literature, Paula Gunn Allen embarked on a career that proved them wrong — and altered the required reading lists of literature classes on U.S. college campuses.The former UCLA professor helped define the canon of Native American literature, encouraged its development by anthologizing new American Indian writers and nurtured a broader audience for the work.

‘This is great literature — American literature,’ Allen said in a 1990 article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. ‘What I want from readers is a fundamental recognition that American Indian culture is alive and thriving.’ Over three decades, Allen wrote 17 books, including works of poetry, a novel, literary criticism, essays, short stories and works of scholarship. In 1983 she published ‘Studies on American Indian Literature, Critical Essays and Course Designs,’ a seminal work that laid the foundation for the study of Native American literature.”(http://articles.latimes.com/2008/jun/07/local/me-allen7).

Pocahontas is a #NastyWoman and Paula Gunn Allen is a #NastyWomanWriter.

©Theresa C. Dintino 2018

Works Cited

Gunn Allen, Paula, Pocahontas: Medicine WomAn, Spy, Entrepreneur, Diplomat. New York:  Harper One, 2003.

Champion of Native American Literature, L.A. Times(http://articles.latimes.com/2008/jun/07/local/me-allen7).