Pulling Out the Threads: Unraveling History

In Byron Hawk’s “Stitching Together Events: Of Joints, Folds, and Assemblages” he describes history in terms of jazz improvisation and complexity theory. His metaphors end up rather mixed, as his title suggests sewing, yet his theory uses the terms of music and chemistry. Of course, sewing, music, and chemistry all have in common the method of taking separate components and working them together in some way. In improvisation, there is an existing frame that one must work within, even though the bifurcations can take us in any number of directions: there is still the frame that we must work within.

As I read, I was excited by the possibilities of history as improvisation. I then started to think about the existing frame that an Indigenous history would have to work within, in order to improvise its own theory. I realized that, rather than stitching events together, a certain amount of unraveling would have to take place. The threads of white supremacy would need to be untangled and pulled out, not eliminated, necessarily, but thoroughly examined in order determine the ways in which those threads influenced the tapestry that we currently have as a representation of Indigenous culture and history.

Quite a bit of the early Indigenous history that appears in the American canon shows up in the form of captivity narratives, and histories told by colonists and settlers.

A famous example, of course, is Pocahontas, a story that has been stitched together to suit many different narrators, just two of which are John Smith and the Walt Disney corporation.

John SmithWalt Disney

This is the historical Pocahontas, once she had changed her name to Rebecca and married John Rolfe.

Rebecca Rolfe

And this is how Disney envisioned her.


According to John Smith’s “history” which is actually just an autobiography, written in the third person, that glorifies him and can hardly be called an accurate history, the story happened like this:

“At his [Captain Smith’s] entrance before the King, all the people gave a great shout. The Queen of Appomattoc was appointed to bring him water to wash his hands, and another brought him a bunch of feathers, instead of a towel, to dry them; having feasted him after their best barbarous manner they could, a long consultations was held, but the conclusion was, two great stones were brought before Powhatan; then as many as could, laid hands on him, dragged him to them, and thereon laid his head and being ready with their clubs to beat out his brains, Pocahontas, the King’s dearest daughter, when no entreaty could prevail, got his head in her arms and laid her down upon his to save him from death, whereat the Emperor was contented he should live to make him hatchets, and her bells, beads, and copper, for they thought him as well of all occupations as themselves.” (Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vol 1, “Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles” by John Smith.)

Disney tells the story this way:

Pocahontas risks herself for her lover, and Powhatan, tapping into the nature around him, hears her words and opts for peace. Of course, the scene doesn’t end this way and John Smith has to rescue the Indian by throwing himself in front of a shot from Governor Radcliffe’s gun, the colonizer rescuing the colonized.

The Powhatan people have this to say: http://www.powhatan.org/pocc.html

They highlight her captivity and her death, and the dishonorable behavior of the Jamestown colonists. Quite a different version from the romance that has become part of the American national myth.

Additionally, recent historical findings have suggested, the “execution” was probably an elaborate initiation ritual intended to signal Smith’s symbolic death as himself, and his resurrection as a member of the tribe.

Tracing the various versions and forms of the Pocahontas story, it is easy to see how “improvisation” was at play; yet, the foundation, largely, has been one that obfuscated or even erased the reality of the situation. The fact that Smith’s account called Indigenous leaders “emperors” or “kings” demonstrates that these histories have been constructed within a frame that had no bearing on and no understanding of Indigenous realities.

In order to “stitch” together a history of Indigenous Americans, then, would the frame need to be destroyed? Completely new building blocks discovered? Or, at this point, is that even possible? Has too much bifurcation occurred, too much improvisation already taken place?

3 thoughts on “Pulling Out the Threads: Unraveling History

  1. Okay, please tell me this is a prelude to your dissertation?!! Jean, not only do I love the fact that you used such a “beloved” tale in American history to illustrate your point, you have me thinking. I don’t know how you will inevitably answer the question, but it may be too late to recreate the true frame of the history of the Indigenous Americans. We are not quite adept to change; and changing our very perception, understanding, and acceptance of what we believe is true would be incredibly difficult, if not impossible.
    I am excited and intrigued…waiting for more.

    1. It’s not going to be part of my dissertation, but I’m looking at some of the same issues in my dissertation. This was actually a post for the History of Rhetoric class that I’m in right now– some of our reading covers different theories for writing histories, and I was playing around with one of those ideas.

      I’m not sure if it’s possible at all… our thinking is too attached to the magic and power of words sometimes, and once words engrain themselves in our cultural psyche, it’s a little hard to change their meaning. But, my hope would be that scholars can draw attention to the inconsistencies and, even though we can’t always restructure our past, perhaps an awareness of how skewed our understanding of the past actually is could help us construct a better future.

      I’m glad you enjoyed it– I need to do more of this kind of writing.

      1. Yes, you do need to do more of this type of writing. Maybe you are the scholar who will break the foundation in these inconsistencies.

        And the irony is that I enjoyed that movie because there are songs that so beautiful. Those songs make the history much more realistic than it is. Amazing the connection and emphasis music plays into history as well.

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