The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

5 proverbs on cross-cultural relations, by Pocahontas

June was Alice-in-Wonderland month at The Displaced Nation, when we discovered that Alice’s “curiouser and curiouser” adventures have something akin to the situations expats and travelers often find themselves in.

But how do local people feel when global nomads land — kerplunk! — on their soil? During July, we’ll be looking at cross-cultural communications (or the lack) with the help of the legendary Pocahontas, one of the world’s foremost experts on fostering intercultural understanding.

As everyone knows — even kids, thanks to Disney — Pocahontas was the human bridge between foreign and local cultures. She helped to connect two groups that were about as different, and as opposed in their aims, as could be imagined: the Algonquin Indians of the Tidewater region of what is now Virginia, led by her father, Chief Powhatan; and the English settlers who’d been sent by the Virginia Company of London to found Jamestown, led by John Smith.

Earlier today, The Displaced Nation performed a special ceremony to invoke the spirit of Pocahontas. She has paid us a short visit, during which she had the following to say:

Chama Wingapo. That’s “Welcome, friends” in the language of my tribe, the Powhatan. “Powhatan” by the way means waterfall.

As you may know from your studies of history, ours was an Algonquian Indian tribe that lived in the Tidewater region of what I understand is now known as Virginia. My father was their king.

Chama Wingapo. I must say, it’s a little strange to speak these words of welcome aloud. Did you know that no one has spoken our language for more than two centuries? It became extinct as we Indians declined in number, dispersed and lost our cultural identity.

Still, I know you’re not interested in the topic of our displacement. It’s just that it was on my mind when I saw you’d just been discussing what some of our descendants irreverently call White Independence Day.

But to return to my mission for The Displaced Nation: I’ve come back to give you some ideas on what building bridges between so-called “local” people and their foreign visitors entails.

Allow me to offer these five proverbs, which represent the distillation of my own experiences:

1. Not everyone you meet in a foreign land will be over the umpsquoth (moon) about your presence in their territory.

I understand you’ve all chosen to travel overseas for your own self-edification, not on behalf of your government’s colonization campaign. And I applaud you for that.

But some of the people you’ll encounter on your travels don’t give two feathers what brought you there. They will always see you as an outsider — not so much displaced but out of place. Nothing would make them happier than if you returned to your own tribe and ceased taking up space in theirs.

Still others will tolerate your presence — but only as long as they can profit from you in some way.

My people, for instance, offered John Smith land for his colonists to live on, in addition to providing the settlers with food — bread, corn and fish — all for an opportunity to trade with them.

Ideally, you will also at some point find someone like me who is interested in forging a genuine friendship across cultures and (where applicable) races. Someone willing to take the time to serve as the intermediary, go-between, guide, translator — I’ve been told that our brethren on the Japan Islands have their own unique term, iki jibiki (walking dictionary) — between you and local residents, with enough skill to ward off the impact of any poison arrows sent your way.

(While on this topic, I have a slight confession to make. I didn’t really save Captain John Smith’s life. Goodness, I was only ten years old at the time we met. What’s more, we were welcoming him into our tribe during the ceremony when I allegedly performed this feat. Talk about cross-cultural communications gone badly wrong! His life was never endangered…)

2. In adapting to another tribe’s ways, you will constantly struggle between respect and disrespect.

Our esteemed descendant Chief Roy Crazy Horse of the Powhatan Renape Nation said the Disney movie of my early life “distorts history beyond recognition.”

While I largely agree with him, there’s one thing that this film got exactly right. I can’t tell you how many times I had the following exchange, not just with Captain Smith but with many of the other palefaces:

JOHN SMITH: We’ve improved the lives of savages all over the world.
JOHN SMITH: Uh, not that you’re a savage.
POCAHONTAS: Just my people!

Of course he (and the others) saw me as a savage, too — I was a heathen, after all!

But just like the wind that can blow hot or cold, this strong aversion to our people would sometimes change into something approaching deep love. In particular, the English respected us for respecting nature.

On this point, the Disney movie went a little too far, portraying me as the original — Aboriginal — tree hugger:

JOHN: Pocahontas, that tree is talking to me!
POCAHONTAS: Then you should talk back!
JOHN: What do you say to a tree?
POCAHONTAS: Anything you want!

Still, there is a grain of truth in that exchange. Our animism was something our foreign friends envied, and hoped they could pick up by association.

3. Romantic love for a person of another culture often has tangled roots.

I should know as I was married twice — once to a fellow Algonquian, and the second time to an English settler by the name of John Rolfe. (No, I was not in love with John Smith — another Disney distortion. I loved him as a father, though.)

Did you know that John Rolfe fretted for several weeks over whether to marry me because I wasn’t a Christian? In the end, I converted and gave myself a Christian name, Rebecca.

At the same time, though, John worshiped the ground I walked on. I was his exotic Indian princess. But sometimes I thought he was more in love with the idea of me as a Noble Savage (rather literally!) than with who I was as a person.

4. When a man or woman moves away from his tribe, opportunities await.

I offer up this proverb for any locals who are considering marriages to foreign visitors.

Thanks to my marriage to John Rolfe, I was able to expand my world far beyond its original boundaries. In the spring of 1616, I, Rebecca Rolfe, took a sea voyage to London as a guest of the Virginia Company. They presented me in all my finery to King James I and the best of London society.

But what is life? The flash of a firefly in the night. I fell ill and died just as we set out on the voyage home. In my memory, the English erected a life-size bronze statue of me at St George’s Church — which you can visit to this day.

Not bad for someone who trod upon this earth a mere 22 years… As I understand it, most people must wait many many umpsquoth before being appointed as the ambassador for their nation.

5. Be ever-watchful of the child whom others may judge harshly because of a mixed heritage.

I had just one child, Thomas Rolfe, who was born to me and John just before we left for England. It’s to my regret that I didn’t live long enough to shield him from the inevitable prejudices shown against Indian-white “mixed-bloods.”

That said, he appears to have thrived, even without my help. Among those who claim descent from Thomas today are several of Virginia’s First Families and the wife of one of your presidents, Nancy Reagan — a strong woman if there ever was one.

The limb doesn’t fall far from the tree!

+ + +

Cheskchamay (all friends), I wish you well on your travels, and I bid you, go in e-wee-ne-tu (peace).

There is one Native American precept that lies beneath all five of these proverbs:

“Do not judge your neighbor until you walk two moons in his moccasins.”

If you remember only this from our encounter, your journey will be a fruitful one.

* * *

Thank you, Pocahontas!

Question: Readers, do you have any responses to Pocahontas’s proverbs — anything to add from your own experiences?

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s RANDOM NOMAD interview, in which our special guest will answer a Pocahontas-related question.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe for email delivery of The Displaced Nation. That way, you won’t miss a single issue. SPECIAL OFFER: New subscribers receive a FREE copy of “A Royally Displaced Tea.”


4 responses to “5 proverbs on cross-cultural relations, by Pocahontas

  1. Spinster July 5, 2011 at 4:32 pm

    Good food for thought.

  2. ML Awanohara July 5, 2011 at 7:17 pm

    Thank you, Spinster. The more steeped I become in Pocahontas lore, the more convinced I become that Native American culture could be a proxy for most foreign cultures — especially non-Western ones. Strangely, though I as an American grew up with this story, it’s only after living outside the U.S. that I’ve been able to see it this way — i.e., as an example of a cross-cultural clash that ended very badly for one side.

  3. naomi July 6, 2011 at 1:08 am

    This was great. Linking to you this weekend in my snippets blog post.

    I have very much enjoyed this series! (Alice, Pocahontas, etc.)

    • ML Awanohara July 6, 2011 at 7:41 am

      Thanks, Naomi: I’m honored! We, too, are enjoying exploring these historical/literary figures from a “displaced” perspective. So much of what they experienced continues to resonate! I for one find that a refreshing surprise — a surprise because I suppose I fancy myself a sophisticated traveler, refreshing because there’s some relief in discovering you’re by no means the first to think you’ve arrived in wonderland, to struggle with primitive cross-cultural communications, etc.

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