I grew up in Virginia. Pocahontas is a big thing. We learn about her from kindergarten on – along with trips to colonial Williamsburg. Our state park was named after her. She is an integral part of the colonizer’s mythos – the Indian woman who welcomes the Europeans, even marrying one but then tragically dying on her trip to England. Her early death is actually convenient for the story, she never manages to escape to tell her real story or turn into a New World Medea** of Greek myths.
I grew up in a rural part of Virginia, in a mostly white-working class neighborhood. Our family was one of two interracial families, and we knew the other family, actually they were the reason we moved there. No one quite knew what to make of me. Most people had never heard of the Philippines, and at the time there were no Latino families, it was old South – white or Black and not much Brown.
So for Halloween I was Pocahontas. For almost all my Halloweens. In fact, the only costume I remember was Pocahontas until I turned 12, and after that I was Goth, so every day became Halloween. But most of my life, for one day a year, I became the white man’s symbol of colonization – I was Pocahontas. I don’t remember how it started, I imagine it was a suggestion of a teacher, I mean my mother certainly had no cultural reference for Pocahontas. We were always making “Indian” costumes in class in Virginia. For Thanksgiving, we made our buckskin dresses with fringe on the bottom. So I imagine that some teacher said, “ My, Terri, that looks so perfect, you really look like an Indian princess.” I took that approval and ran with it.
I do remember that wearing a Pocahontas costume, was the one time a year, that felt like I fit in. I was part of the story, the story that all my classmates were already in. Now I had my part. And everyone loved me! Everywhere I went in my Pocahontas costume, people all said what a beautiful Indian princess I was. For the first time, I felt beautiful, maybe even glamorous, like a celebrity.
So I call this story my “inner colonization story”, and like all colonization stories, it is a painful memory, but I have forgiven my little child self. There has been a lot written about Halloween and the racism and classism it brings out. The narrative is usually focused on white folks wearing racist costumes or appropriating another person’s culture and taking it as a “costume”, effectively colonizing it. There hasn’t been a lot of talk among our colonized nations about our own inner-colonizer and how it can come out for Halloween. (Like an Arab friend of mine, whose sister was Princess Yasmine every year).
Pocahontas is one of those meta-symbols, she carries a lot of weight, from the European perspective, a woman who willingly gives up her own people for the love of the European “explorer” and justifies the European “civilization” of the “New World.” From the colonized perspective, she was a child, kidnapped, raped and taken to England as a trophy where she died. For me, she was an bridge to assimilation, the one day a year, where I seemed to fit in.
** Medea is the foreign princess who betrays her whole family and people for the love of the Greek Jason, who then finds bitterly that her husband no longer wants his foreign wife and leaves her for another, more suitable bride. In a fury, she slaughters her children, her husband, his new, Greek wife, and takes off on a chariot.