In The New World, the latest film from director Terrence Malick, it's interesting to note that though Pocahontas' face is the first we see and her voiceover is the first of many we hear, she's never referred to by name. Not once in this cinematic portrayal of Europeans landing on North American soil in 1607 do we hear John Smith, John Rolfe, or any of the other historical figures who interact with the legendary Native American utter the name "Pocahontas." And perhaps that's appropriate, since much is unknown about this woman who went by many names throughout her turbulent 21 years.
History tells us that her given name was Matoaca, but most of her tribe called her Pocahontas, which means "playful one." There are also recorded accounts of her having the names Amonte and White Feather. When she converted to Christianity and was baptized in 1614, she was given the Christian name Rebecca. For as many names as she had, there are as many interpretations of her role in American history: savior, victim, peacemaker, mother of the new world, pawn, ambassador, first Christian convert in America.
Though there are many documented accounts of her conversion to the Christian faith, there's widespread disagreement over whether that conversion was voluntary or forced. In Malick's telling of the story, there are differing opinions even among those involved in the project. Q'Orianka Kilcher, the 15-year-old newcomer who portrayed Pocahontas, thought her conversion was an "instinct of survival"—i.e., she didn't have much choice in the matter.
Kilcher, who's of Quechua/Huachipaeri Indian and Alaskan/Swiss heritage, describes herself as a "spiritual person" who was "deeply affected" by playing Pocahontas. "When Pocahontas is converted to Christianity ...1