Indography pp 105-115 | Cite as

Playing Indian

John Smith, Pocahontas, and a Dialogue about a Chain of Pearl
  • Karen Robertson
Part of the Signs of Race book series (SOR)


The first words of John Smith’s Map of Virginia, published in Oxford in 1612, record a question in Algonquin: “Ka katorowinos yowo” (What call you this?). Smith chose a dialogue to initiate this book that provides the reader with a map illustrated with images of Indians, descriptions of the newly settled territory, and even sounds, should the reader choose to speak aloud the words in Algonquin.1 By featuring the vocabulary at the opening of his text, Smith makes preeminent the Indian tongue. The acquisition of Indian languages by English explorers was recognized early on as crucial to the project of colonization,2 as Harriot’s early development of a grammar and dictionary of Algonquin in 1585 shows.3 Both the map and knowledge of Indian languages are central technologies of colonial power. Yet language acquisition can have unexpected consequences for the colonizer. Melissa Walter in her essay on translation in this volume provides the valuable insight that language acquisition does not simply mean the assimilation of vocabulary to a preexisting system of knowledge but can also lead to a recognition of, and engagement with, alternative conceptual systems. From simple acquisition of more information, a technology of European power, the Englishman could engage with unfamiliar systems of knowledge that had the potential to transform him. In the dialogue, the Englishman initially seems to cede power to his Algonquin tutor, conceding to him both linguistic and geographic knowledge.


Private Tutor Indian Language Complete Work Language Lesson Culture Broker 
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  1. 3.
    John Shirley, Thomas Harriot (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), 107, 147–148.Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    The publisher’s emendations of authorship attribution reveal the gradual uncovering of his identity: authorship was first attributed to Thomas Watson, then “a Gentleman,” and finally corrected to “Captain Smith, Coronell” (Charles Deane, ed., A True Relation of Virginia (Boston: Wiggin and Lunt, 1866), xv– xvi; see further Philip Barbour, ed. Complete Works, I, 5–6).Google Scholar
  3. 6.
    On the language recovery movement, see Wesley Leonard, “When is an ‘Extinct Language’ Not Extinct?” in Sustaining Linguistic Diversity, ed. Kendall King et al. (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2008).Google Scholar
  4. 7.
    For a useful history of French language teaching in England, see Kathleen Rebillon Lambley, The Teaching and Cultivation of the French Language in England During Tudor and Stuart Times (Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 1920).Google Scholar
  5. 9.
    John Smith, The Complete Works of Captain John Smith, ed. Philip Barbour (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986), III: 155.Google Scholar
  6. 16.
    Charles Deane in his post-Civil War edition of Smith’s True Relation (Wiggin and Lunt, 1866), raised questions about Smith’s “knight errantry” (note 2, 39–40), criticism intensified by Henry Adams in the North American Review (1867). For discussion of the nineteenth-century quarrels, aspects of post-Civil War revisions of American history, see Jarvis M. Morse, “John Smith and his Critics: A Chapter in Colonial Historiography,” Journal of Southern History I (1935): 123–137. Smith’s modern biographer, J. A. Leo Lemay, suggests that Smith was being “ritualistically killed,” The American Dream of Captain John Smith (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991), 52. Although no other adoption ritual of this sort has been recorded for the Powhatans, given Smith’s mention of Pocahontas in the early dialogue, I tend to credit the rescue narrative, however self-serving its elaboration in The Generall Historie. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 21.
    R. C. Simonini, “Language Lesson Dialogues in Shakespeare,” Shakespeare Quarterly 2, no. 4 (1951): 319–329.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 23.
    See Helen Rountree, The Powhatan Indians of Virginia: Their Traditional Culture (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989), 90–94.Google Scholar
  9. 27.
    Nicolas Saunders, “Biographies of Brilliance: Pearls, Transformations of Matter and Being, c. AD 1492,” World Archaeology 31, no. 2 (October 1999): 243–297, especially 248.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    See Mary Fuller, Voyages in Print: English Travel to America, 1576–1624 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) on recuperation of loss and failure as a central rhetorical strategy in English travel narratives.Google Scholar
  11. 31.
    George Kunz, The Book of the Pearl: The History, Art, Science, and Industry of the Queen of Gems (New York: The Century, 1908), 23.Google Scholar
  12. 33.
    See, for example, William Vantuono, ed., Pearl: An Edition with Verse Translation (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995).Google Scholar

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© Jonathan Gil Harris 2012

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  • Karen Robertson

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