Tag Archives: Powhatan

The New World

Although the Terrence Malick film originally titled Pocahontas takes a settler’s perspective on the conquest of Virginia, it has at least a subtext about resistance and negotiation. Qorianka Kilcher delivers a powerhouse performance in her big screen debut. Still, the lives of the First Nations that the Jamestown colony turned upside down come across mainly in pantomime, in this visually stunning epic about the rape of a native princess.

Historiography tells a rather different story.

When Captain Smith’s life was spared in a peacebuilding ritual involving the chief’s young daughter, the Captain took the role playing rather literally, and believed himself to be the object of her affections. His natural reaction? To run away – as he always did under such circumstances, in his long career of mercenary work and piracy on the borders of the Turkish empire and along the Mediterranean, before it occurred to him to sign up for a colonial adventure. This was only the third time in his life he’d been rescued by a princess, and the satirists of his day would never let him forget it, writing ditties about his amorous adventures in the popular press.

This poem, based on the 80th Psalm, tells the story of her people’s glory days and their hopes of repelling the first settlers, before the outcome of the war was decided.

Spirit, lift the welk to your ear,
mother of rivers our ancestors crossed,
distant enchantress of starlight, bend near.
Before Wehunsenacawh
stir your sandbar-twisting sinews from rest,
and help your peoples repel this new threat.
Sister of the west wind, return our land,
and smile again on the Algonquin tribes.
Fathomless child of all rivers, what have you brought us?
We receive from you our own tears,
and the tears you bring threaten to drown us.
Our trust is betrayed by our guests from the sky,
and behind their hands they mock our compacts.
Sister of the knife’s edge wind, retake our homes,
and grace our displaced peoples with your smile.
You who led by the hand our ancestors,
you routed whole nations that we might grow.
You spread the topsoil above the marshes
and protected all our streams and gardens,
and our alliance spanned great watersheds.
Ancient mountain passes bowed to our laws,
and densely we built among the great pines.
You gathered our strength all the way to the sea,
and up every river and stream to their roots.
Why have yo sundered Powhatan’s royal line
so that these passers-by pluck his daughter’s skirts?
The wild deer have stripped our homes of bark,
the wild rabbits and squirrels eat our stores.
Sister of the harrowing cold, come back,
turn your gaze from the scooting clouds and look,
if you even recognize your people,
the chieftans you once gave your blessing –
their holy places are burned down and wrecked,
and naked, their children perish at your touch.
Stretch your swift wings out to our refugees,
shelter the people you once called your own.
And we will not falter, drawing your breath.
Return to us all that we held in your name.
Sister of the raven’s wind, take us home.
Break open your secret smile between us.

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