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pocahontas' transcendence

Daniel Metzman

In many religions, land is seen as something inextricably tied to the identity of their people. The numerous religious groups that have sought to control Jerusalem demonstrate how this link is something their followers are willing to die for. Similarly, the Native Americans and English settlers in Pocahontas and The New World see territory as inseparable from their way of life. For instance, The New World commences with a map appearing over Virginia, an artful beginning for a film that is so concerned with exploring territory and it’s consequence in the mindset of the people who seek to control it. In each film, control of space is seen as a justified ends to the killing of the conflict.  While characters like Powhatan in The New World and Governor Ratcliffe in Pocahontas go to any length to control territory, Pocahontas is of an alternative mindset to the masculine, territorial one that dominated the thinking of the Natives Americans and settlers. Pocahontas teaches us how to rise above this dangerous mindset to allow for peaceful coexistence.

For the settlers, the lush terrain of Virginia is sought as an oasis where they can escape from their downtrodden lives. One can see that the settlers view territory as strongly tied in to their identity, as they see the opportunity to carve out land in Virginia as a chance at a new life.  At the start of The New World, we are presented with the image of scraggily desperados escaping a degenerate existence in search of an unclaimed Eden. The film opens by contrasting a serene Pocahontas swimming in the Sea with these gruff-looking undesirables. As the film cuts between the two, an uplifting composition by Wagner plays in the background. The contrast between the land ahead and the ships, as well as the positive music suggest a turn of fortune for the settlers. While Pocahontas swims and looks peacefully towards the light, we see a shot of Native American scouts gesturing towards the hulking ships from the eyes of the submerged Pocahontas. As the settlers gaze hopefully upon this lush landscape, the films cuts to a view of the ships from behind the natives as they scurry to scout the ships and hide behind trees and bushes in crouched, defensive postures in anticipation of conflict. The multiple contrasts in the scene indicate that as far as the Englishmen have come to claim new land, the natives would go to defend it. We see here that both groups clearly want this land badly, and tie up its value with their identity. Pocahontas portrays the new world as a land of redemption for the Settlers as well, though the redemption is of a more immediate nature. In the opening scenes of Pocahontas, a menacing storm threatens to destroy the English ship, as the burly settlers do their best to prevent this from occurring. A dark scene is set as rain falls heavily on the ship as the burly settlers are working at stations all over the ship just to keep it afloat. For them, the land ahead quite literally saves them from certain death. In both scenes, we see that territory represents a second chance for the settlers. That the settlers risk their life traversing the Atlantic Ocean just to claim new territory demonstrates that they value it as much as life itself. For the settlers, new land is something that signifies another chance, showing why it is so tied up with their identity in each film.

We see the importance of territory to the identity of the Native Americans as Powhatan sought to evaluate how to deal with the threat of the settlers in the films. In the scene in The New World in which Powhatan decides to spare Smith’s life, land is the primary concern in Powhatan’s decision making. When Pocahontas and her brother plead with Powhatan to spare John Smith, they do so by marginalizing the worth of the territory that the settlers have claimed. However, one of the tribe elders warn Powhatan to think not only of the “swampland” they’ve taken now, but also of the more suitable land they may occupy in the future. After weighing his options, Powhatan decides to let him live so he “can teach her about his land across the waves.” A ceremony is performed to celebrate this judgment. Powhatan’s words here shows that even as the tribe is worrying about protecting their land from their settlers, he has taken an interest in the territories of the old world. As the natives carry John Smith outside, Powhatan informs the elder of his intention to “drive them to the sea” if they don’t leave. Powhatan’s hyperbole here further shows us highly he views the importance of land. Instead of telling the elder that they would kill the settlers, he just says he will devoid them of physical land. Of course, Powhatan remains loyal to this intention when he attacks the settlers later in the film. Near the end of the film, we see Powhatan has sent his brother to evaluate the lands and count the foreign people by making marks in sticks. This portrays the two and their interest in territory in an almost mocking tone, as he complains that the English number as the “blades of grass”. These moments each convey the value Native Americans attach to territory, yet the latter mocks them for it, conveying the film’s intention to debase this mindset.

We also see a similar conflation of territory and well-being in the settlers. In The New World we see a scene representative of this when Pocahontas led her tribe to Jamestown to provide food for the colonists who couldn’t survive the winter.  She gives them food and provisions and also teaches the settlers how to provide for themselves if they run out of the goods, informing them that they can find shellfish under the winter ice. This scene seems to strongly favor the benefits their connection offers over territoriality (more starvation for the settlers, at least in the short while).  However, John Smith seems to view the gesture from a purely transactional perspective as he warns Pocahontas with the words “Don't trust me… You don't know who I am.” This statement shows that he is only using the relationship to benefit the settlement of Native American territory. In addition, in the concluding scenes of The New World, Pocahontas meets with John Smith in England, and inquires if he ever found the Indies. Smith responds, “I may have sailed past them.” Smith’s response reflects that he recognizes his mistake in deciding to pursue territory rather than pursue his spiritual connection with Pocahontas. This is a microcosm of the larger relationship of the Settlers with the Native Americans. Both groups decided to focus on the land they were gaining or losing rather than the benefits they could gain from cooperating with one another. However, John Smith realizes that the thing he needed all this time wasn’t territory, but a human relationship.

In both Pocahontas and The New World, the settler’s obsession with gold reflects their view of Virginia as a new Eden where everything would be provided for them. In Pocahontas, we hear the Captain and settlers constantly talk of gold and the life it’ll provide for them.  For instance, in conversation with John Smith, Ratcliffe states “I'm gonna get a pile of gold, build me a big house... and if any Indian tries to stop me, I'll blast him.” This perfectly captures how the settlers truly viewed territory in The New World as a path to a new, better life. Furthermore, in The New World, we see the settlers consistently searching for gold instead of making practical improvements to their life. When Newport suggests that the settlers enjoy the fruits of labor on the new land rather than hoping for gold, Selway responded “Begging your pardon, but if we'd wanted to farm, we could have stayed in Devon.” Together, these show how the settlers saw territory in the New World as the key to an easy life, with large amounts of gold and little work.

However, we see Pocahontas go against the territoriality of the rival groups in both films. We see from the last scene in The New World how Pocahontas shows us that this struggle for territory was never necessary to start with.  In the final scene of The New World, we hear Pocahontas son’s words: “Mother, now I know where you live.” This is a critical line in the film, as it hints at the message of the film: The true spirit of a person doesn’t need physical territory to live.  Pocahontas occupied a higher “territory” which wasn’t bound by physical space.  While characters like her father and John Smith are certain that controlling territory is necessary to their existence, Pocahontas transcends this boundary by occupying a higher, spiritual rather than physical space. This would explain why her son only now understands where she lived. Her dancing and somersaults in the field while wearing her restrictive dress suggest that physical boundaries can’t determine someone’s identity. This has massive implications for interpreting the film. While Powhatan and the English settlers are controlled by their desire for territory, Pocahontas stands alone in her recognition of her independence from her territory. Along these lines, Rolfe said in his letter to his son that Pocahontas died “at the mouth of the Thames, where the river flows out into the sea.” This hints that Pocahontas final place of rest is not a bound physical space; her body effortlessly floats about, carried by wherever the sea takes her. This final scene in The New World confirms Pocahontas’ place in the movie as a unique character in the film. Though she is the character with the most in common with both the Native Americans and English, she is also very different from both groups, not really belonging in either.  Her willingness to cross over and forge connections with strangers ends up being her undoing as she dies from pneumonia in England. Her illness and death may lead one to assume that she is a cautionary tale.

However, her death is not treated as a tragedy as much for her as for the people who loved her. She isn’t shown suffering in a struggle for survival. Pocahontas’ transition to the next world was portrayed as a seamless one. As her son implied, her true place home wasn’t on earth anyways. John Smith is the one who “died in the crossing” in the film. Indeed, Pocahontas character is very relevant to overcoming the territoriality that causes so much conflict in modern times.  Her transcendent mindscapes evoke ideals of Nirvana in regards to overcoming physical space and the individual in striving to reach a divine place of being. As Pocahontas somersaults in pristine gardens after Rolfe’s message to his son is read, we get the sense that she has discovered the paradise that the settlers were so desperate to find, that the Native American fought to protect, that Smith searched for in the West Indies.  In the rapidly evolving times in which Pocahontas lived, her outlook remained deeply rooted in the past yet had massive implications on the present. Pocahontas’ mindset could be a key to peaceful coexistence, something that is direly needed in many conflict regions around the globe.