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I Would Give a Thousand Pelts....
Compiled/edited by Mary Maguire(firstname.lastname@example.org)
to get a fix on Pocahontas
For two days in March 1997, the Rust brain-trust tried its hand at
How did the discussion start?
Does "find out how she felt" mean what I think it does?
How does this song reflect Neil's empathy for the plight of Native Americans?
Is the narrator a sympathetic (if stupid) white man? Or is he native, himself?
What's the significance of that Marlon Brando reference?
It all started innocently enough: An certain Rusty
posted a story about his daughter's day at school...
I have a wonderful 5 year old daughter who of course is a big Neil fan.
She has learned most of the words to Pocahontas and her favorite verse is
"I wish I was a trapper...." When picking her up from pre-school last week,
the director pulled me aside and questioned my parenting skills. "I want to
sleep with Pocahontas and find out how she felt?"
Apparently, during "circle" the children were asked if they wanted to sing/say
their favorite nursery rhyme or sing Happy Birthday to Joe (who was 5 that day).
My daughter stood up and said she wanted to sing Pocahontas. Expecting
something from Walt's studio, the class was graced with Neil's second greatest
song ever (following Thrasher, of course). My wife (who actually prefers Brian
Ferry's LAH to Neil's - to give you her bias) isn't real happy with me either.
Question. I never perceived any sexual connotation from that line, rather Neil
wanted to know how Pocahantos (and other Indians/Native Americans) felt to
be persecuted by the "settlers." Am I blind?
That led us into a rousing debate over the lyrical Trapper's intentions:
I wish I was a trapper
I would give a thousand pelts
To sleep with Pocahontas
And find out how she felt
In the mornin' on the fields of green
In the homeland we've never seen.
Predictably, our male Rusties (and the odd Rustette) saw no ambiguity...
For me that's a clear sexual connotation. Hey, but "to sleep" with somebody is
a rather tender expression compared to the f_*!-word.
And maybe Neil just talked about how it was: most of the stinking
trappers (I don't mean the nowadays computer-connected, though =;)
would have given many pelzes to sleep with cute PH.
IMHO, I dont think the Neilster was imagining buying a nite with PH, I
think "a thousand pelts" was how much it was worth to him to have a woman
like that and find out "how she felt" in those wonderful moments of
While the fairer sex (and a few of the men) saw something else.. :)
I don't necessarily see a sexual connotation here, although
trappers aren't remembered for their wholesome reputations.
But when you look at that line in the context of the whole verse,
the emphasis is on finding out how she felt *in the morning* (i.e., how the
world looked through her eyes) not how she felt in the arms of a white man.
After all, Pocahontas was just a little girl--she married at 14 and was
doing all the stuff she's famous for between 10 and 13 years old.
I've gotta admit that I never heard it that way. I always put a period
after "felt." Now I can see very clearly that I was wrong. (The trees
always get in my eyes.)
I don't even think it has to read "Pocahontas" for him to make his point.
It could just as well say:
...to sleep with the indians and find out how they felt in the morning
on the fields of green, in the homeland we've never seen.
You know, before the stupid f@#king white man destroyed it.
I get the impression that with Neil's heritage and respect for the
American Indians that he for a moment wanted to be there at that time to
really feel what was it like during that time. It's one thing to read
and hear about it but to actually be there in that time would broaden
his knowledge and understanding. I don't think of the song in a sexual
way. It's much more spiritual.
I see it as sexual, in a Utopian sort of way. By sleeping with her he'd
get some insight into her soul. Not just a wham-bam. He talks about
seeing the world a little differently in the morning. But we all know
that only happens in stories, songs, and daydreams. There is a dreamy
feel to the song.
Ken came back with a comment from Neil, himself:
In June of 1988 Spin did an interview with Neil, which mostly consisted
of the interviewer (Scott Cohen) throwing Neil's lyrics at him and Neil
trying to give some sort of answer. One exchange is pertinent, and I
believe points to the sexual interpretation of the line in question.
SPIN: If you were a trapper, would you give a 1000 pelts to sleep with
Pocahontas and find out how she felt?
NEIL: I think I would have.
I would have given all the pelts I had.
Then I'd go out and trap more.
The entry of David Teal took us down a broader path:
1. is the line/reference meant to be sexual?
Of course. At the very least, look at it as a double entendre. Not to
mention a pun. Mixing mentions of pelts and "sleeping with" -- I think
this is deliberate humor in a song that has several other witticisms as
well. It isn't the MAIN point, I don't think. But I do think the humor,
subtle as it may be, adds to the surrealness of the description (which
strikes me as being like a dream -- or a daydream, since much of the
last part uses the conditional tense: I WOULD give a thousand pelts...;
I COULD find out how it felt...; etc.
Dark humor, for sure. Right in keeping with a movie like DM many years later!
But also like the cockeyed humor in "Little Big Man" and also "One Flew
Over the Cuckoo's Nest," both of which were popular around the time Neil
wrote Pocahontas, and both of which also have quite serious subject
matters (regarding the distance between white culture and Native
American culture), but are clothed in some pretty funny stuff.
2. So, what IS the main point?
IMHO (and I really do mean "humble"): I think that this part of the
song is the speaker's expression of a longing to know the REAL
experience of a Native American. He's not JUST thinking about sex with
Pocahontas. I see the sex as a metaphor for experiencing ALL of her and
her world. The longing comes about because, as a white man, he is
distanced from her more "natural" experience of the world. The thousand
pelts perfectly reflects his white/western/materialistic view of the
world -- it's the only way that speaker can relate to her and her world.
He feels dehumanized by western/capitalistic world views, and wants to
get REhumanized "on the fields of green."
You can choose, if you'd like, to believe that "sleep with" means ONLY
"sleep with" and not "having sex." Regardless of whether they're having
sex or just celibately enjoying each other's company -- playing pinochle
or whatever -- I see the speaker as expressing his longing to get past
the MYTH of Pocahontas (and Native Americans in general, probably) and
get to really know the "REAL" Pocahontas (along with the Romantic,
"Natural Beauty" view of the world that she represents in the song).
We talked a little bit about the Native American theme:
i always thought the protagonist was thinking out loud. wishing he were
back in the days that pocahantas represents. a time of greater simplicity,
back in the good ol' days. nostalgia is not what i'm suggesting. i am
suggesting the desire to live during a time of greater purity and
ecological harmony (the fields of green. the homelands we've never seen)
this is a similar theme as natural beauty. it is a romantic yearning,however.
the reality was pestillence and rape and genocide. by the white man upon
the red man. here in this song neil is painting a pastiche, a landscape of the
conquest of the foriengners over the indigenous people.
pocahantas is why neil did dead man. it is a meditation on where we have
come from as a society. our nation was built upon genocide. maybe not as
accepted an act as the holocaust but just as evil. just as profoundly
racist and with utter disregard for human dignity.
Pocahontas, like Cortez the Killer, is for me about the construction of a
romantic, mythical past that expresses through indirection the narrator's
powerful feeling for someone who, just beyond the margins of words, is the
unspoken subject of each song. They are love songs that highlight Neil's
oblique, unique sense of talking about love by (mostly) talking about
I think "give a thousand pelts" is metaphorical, being from the imagined
trapper's perspective something along the lines of "I'd give my left hand."
"Find out how she felt" is a nice play on words: sexual, but also tender
and understated. The whole verse, from "I wish I was a trapper" to "the
homeland we've never seen" is for me very reminiscent of a similar move in
Cortez, when the narrator suddenly brings in a possibly mythical lover out
of nowhere: "And I know she's living there/ and she loves me to this day/I
just can't remember where or when/ or how I lost my way." For me, both
these songs get a lot of their power from this mixing of mythical,
Eden-like history with personal romantic longing -- falling in love being
in some ways analogous to the creation and worship of a fallible god.
Then John Irving (an author of sorts, but not the one you're thinking of) chimed-in with a totally new idea:
Does anyone else see this as the Native-American from earlier on in
the song, wishing that he was a trapper and sleeping with
It does say "In the homeland, we've never seen." "Homeland" and
"we've" brings it back to the Native-American as the first person
narrating the story.
It also does make it kind of interesting, considering Pocahantas in
the legend ended up with a white man (stupid or not).
I think that the narrator, who now lives unhappily in his
"little box at the top of the stairs," wants to go back in time, and get
his buffalo, women, babies, Pocohantus, and his homeland "in the fields
of green," basically the world of his ancestors before the white men
came, all back. It seems like he's an unhappy modern day Native
American longing for the past before the white men came and took it all
away. It's evident that his people were removed from their homeland
before he was born, because he's never seen it but greatly yearns to.
It sounds like a description of the current plight of the Native
Americans...as seen from the eyes of one.
David wondered about the significance of the final last verse:
Do you think this song was maybe inspired by the AIM takeover at Wounded
Knee? What year did that take place? ...
The Brando reference is easy to explain -- the Oscar thing, of course,
but also I learned recently on a documentary about Brando that he went
to Wounded Knee during the AIM standoff and talked with Russell Means.
When I saw that a couple of weeks ago, "Pocahontas" came immediately to
mind. That event may be even more relevant to the song than the Oscars
But what to make of the other people at the end of the song?
Ann Margaret, Muhammed Ali, and John Ehrlichman? All were major
cultural figures in the mid 70s, when Neil apparently wrote the
song -- American representatives of acting, sports, and politics.
Are they in the song to be symbols of the larger American culture
that has overridden the speaker's culture? Could Neil just as well have
used images like "golden arches," etc. the way he did "the first tv"?
I'm trying to fit them into the argument about the speaker's cultural
point of view. It may not matter a whole lot -- this song seems to me to
be, on some level, "about" MYTH and about either getting past it or
through it or re-generating it, and so the speaker's point of view can
vary and yet the song still be a well-connected piece of art.
John sums it up:
Personally, I think that the people mentioned in the last stanza of
Pocahontas, serve two purposes to the narrator.(Whom like I've said, I
believe to be a modern day Native American, perhaps exiled to some
current urban American landscape, in all ways far away from his sacred
ancestral homeland which he has been told of) As the icons of a foreign
country and culture which perhap's he's briefly viewed on a
television (in the seventies, when they were frequently on television),
and as real people whom he might generously pass his pipe to, and ask
questions of. He must know them, to better know this culture that he
was conquered by and must live in, but understands so little of.
Neil, through his narrator, is allowing for a reconciliation between
the conquerer and the conquered. His narrator longs for the Old
Ways (pardon the pun), but understands that his new world is the one he
must understand, because it's here now. And maybe he can meet with it's
Chiefs or leaders, whom he's seen on television. They must be this
world's heroes, and must have vanquished many of it's enemies. They're
being adored and made great by their presence on television, therefore
they must be the ones he should sit with and try to understand. They'll
pass a pipe, and talk of the white man's culture, but he'll be sure that
they'll also look to the past and recognize the culture and
contributions made by the red man, on the present. And Marlon Brando's
greatness, both as a movie hero and as a man capable of understanding
and sympathizing with the red man's plight, will be the bridge to
understanding for these two cultures. He's the connection, both for the
Native American to understand the white man, and the white man to
understand the the Native American. The song ends in the spirit of
reconciliation(sadly, perhaps impractically) for the two cultures.
The taxis run across my feet
And my eyes have turned to blanks
In my little box at the top of the stairs
With my Indian rug and a pipe to share.
I just wanted to mention that the above stanza, to me, is one of the
saddest reflections on human experience that I've ever been exposed to
in music. Not sad like a lost love, or a death, but sad like watching
the old films of the concentration camps made after the holocaust, where
the camera pans around a large room, pausing briefly on piles of
luggage, clothing, glasses and other personal effects which were removed
from their doomed owners with tremendous precision, cherished
possessions of victims who will never come to claim them. Similiarly,
these clothes and personal things are all that is left of this Native
American narrator's culture, although the historic circumstances are
We don't have the ability to completely realize the plight of this
Native American, because this culture that we live in fits most of us
well, as it should. We are able to acheive a comfort within it which
the narrator will never know again since his world has been seized and
systematicallly destroyed, having been deemed unworthy and savage. But
he longs to sit around a fire again, and in his own way, learn of this
new world and it's people in which he now lives, again in the spirit of
friendship and reconciliation. Until that day he sits alone on an
indian rug, with a pipe, to offer to someone who never comes.
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