Review of Pocahontas and Sacagawea by Cyndi Spindell Berck
Journal of American Folklore (Indiana University)
Accessed Nov 29 2017
Kristina Downs, Managing Editor
Pocahontas and Sacagawea: Interwoven Legacies in American History. By Cyndi Spindell Berck. (Alexandria: Commonwealth Books of Virginia, 2015. Pp. 271, introduction, references, index, 28 black-and-white images, 7 black-and-white maps.)
Though Cyndi Spindell Berck's book is called Pocahontas and Sacagawea: Interwoven Legacies in American History, only a small portion of the work actually focuses on the two women named in the title. Only two out of the 11 chapters focus on Pocahontas and Sacagawea. The book is, in fact, a history of Native American-white relations in what is now the United States from the early stages of British colonization through the settlement of the West. Pocahontas' story acts as a starting point for this history, while Sacagawea's serves as a significant waypoint; the book concludes with the story of a third Native American woman, Sarah Winnemucca, the so-called Paiute Princess. A short epilogue discusses the contemporary position of Native Americans, particularly the tribes that Pocahontas and Sacagawea belonged to.
The brevity of the historical discussion about the two eponymous women is more necessity than fault; very little historical information exists about them. Even so, Berck does an excellent job of contextualizing the events of these women's lives, incorporating both Native American and European/Euro-American historical and cultural information. For example, while discussing Pocahontas, she also discusses interactions between the Jamestown settlers and the Virginia tribes to show how the actions of Pocahontas, Powhatan, John Smith, and John Rolfe were influenced by the overall colonial situation. She explores the Algonquian symbolism of the white feathers often associated with Pocahontas to suggest that she may have had some sort of spiritual role in her tribe. When encountering historical controversies, such as the veracity of Smith's tale of being saved from execution by Pocahontas, Berck discusses a range of theories before expressing her own conclusions. Ultimately, regarding that debate, she concludes that "John Smith was much too attached to his head" (p. 26) to have made up the entire rescue scenario, since it would have meant lying to the Queen, but that it was likely an adoption ceremony he misunderstood. Anthropologists have previously suggested the adoption theory, but Berck's reasoning for accepting it is intriguing, if perhaps not totally convincing.
The book seems to be written with a general, rather than a scholarly, audience in mind; Berck's prose is straightforward and easy to follow. It would serve well as an introduction to the figures and issues discussed. From an academic perspective, however, there are some aspects of the writing that are frustrating. Quotations are often dropped into the text without framing or in-text attribution. Berck repeatedly cites "Mattaponi oral history" when she is actually citing Linwood Custalow's The True Story of Pocahontas: The Other Side of History (Fulcrum Publishing, 2007). While Custalow's book is important as one of a few Native accounts of the colonization of Virginia, its roots in oral history are still contested. The scope of Berck's project is impressive, but as a result, its historical and cultural examinations are of limited depth. Folklorists may find this book unsatisfying, as it does not consider the persistence of these narratives in American vernacular culture; the focus is solely on the historical legacies of these women. That said, Berck makes a useful contribution by highlighting connections between historical eras and figures. For example, the descendants of Pocahontas include Thomas Randolph, who married the daughter of Thomas Jefferson, the president who sent Lewis and Clark on their exploration of the [End Page 477] West. William Clark was the brother of George Rogers Clark, a key figure in Native-settler conflicts on the Virginia frontier. Sarah Winnemucca also gained fame by playing Pocahontas on stage.
In addition to Pocahontas and Sacagawea, Berck creates equally intriguing portraits of lesser-Known figures such as the mountain man James Beckwourth, son of a Virginia aristocrat and a black woman, who had a long friendship with Sacagawea's son Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau. Charbonneau himself is also an important focus of discussion. Through these portraits, Berck shows the importance of cultural intermediaries in the shaping of American history, while also highlighting the difficult lives they led. Charbonneau, for example, was appointed alcalde of the Mission San Luis Rey de Francia in California but was eventually pushed into resigning when his biracial status led to accusations that he was too sympathetic to the Native population.
Overall, Pocahontas and Sacagawea: Interwoven Legacies in American History is an enjoyable and interesting read. It incorporates multiple perspectives about the colonization and expansion of what is now the United States, particularly with regard to the impact on native peoples. It will provide an excellent starting point for anyone wishing to explore the issues and figures discussed, and it shines a much-needed spotlight on often overlooked aspects of history.
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