The myths of Pocahontas, dispelled

As Native voices gain prominence, the president undermines representation.

 

Indian Country News is a weekly note from High Country News, as we continue to broaden our coverage of tribal affairs across the West.

For many in Indian Country, fall can be a bitter reminder of both the atrocities of the past and their modern day distortion in the national narrative. It’s a lousy time of year, starting with Columbus Day, which honors a man who spelled doom for millions of Indigenous people, and moving through Halloween, when Native-themed costumes mock innumerable cultures. There is no worse reminder of the North American genocide, though, than Thanksgiving.

Too often, journalists miss the mark when commenting on Thanksgiving’s place among Native communities. However, more and more news organizations are giving careful thought to coverage of Indigenous peoples. This year, NPR’s Code Switch gave a platform to news assistant Savannah Mahe, a citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Nation, whose members first encountered and were later enslaved by English colonists. Mahe’s piece touches on a wide range of issues linked to a distorted history, and a holiday that people think somehow honors Native Americans.

“Wish any of us a ‘Happy Thanksgiving’ today, and we’re liable to cut you off and say, ‘You mean the National Day of Mourning?’” Mahe writes.

A painting from 1932 entitled "The first Thanksgiving, 1621" depicts a quaint version of relations between English settlers and Native Americans.

It’s no surprise that a program like Code Switch, which does excellent, provocative coverage of race and identity, would address Thanksgiving by raising up a Native voice. More surprising was to see The New York Times, which often falters in Indian Country, give not one but four Native writers a chance to weigh in on the holiday.

Those small steps forward for Native representation were undercut just days later by the president of the United States. Addressing (and purportedly honoring) a group of Navajo Code Talkers and veterans of World War II, President Donald Trump thought it a good moment to take another jab at Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., by disparaging her as “Pocahontas.” This was meant as a wry critique of the outspoken senator, who was raised in Oklahoma and has made unfounded claims of Cherokee ancestry, based on the “high cheek-bones” of her grandfather. Such exchanges demonstrate how complicated and pervasive slights toward Native Americans can be.

Yes, Warren ought to do more to take responsibility for her past comments. And, no, the president ought not use a racial slur to disparage a political opponent. More than that, though, we all need to work harder to honor the true history of Pocahontas and other Indigenous peoples kidnapped, raped or otherwise forced to assimilate into Anglo-European culture.

In fact, the true story of Pocahontas is much more complicated than a Disney feature, and is tangentially related to Thanksgiving. The daughter of an Algonquian-affiliated chief named Wahunsenacawh, (called Powhatan by the English), a teenage Pocahontas knew John Smith and other early colonists from their Jamestown settlement — which only survived its first year thanks to a supply of corn brought by the tribe. After that first year, when the English demanded more than the tribe could provide, the relationship turned acrimonious, with Smith undertaking an armed campaign to take food from villages around Jamestown and Wahunsenacawh trying to starve the colonists out, according to The American West: A New Interpretive History. Wahunsenacawh later told Smith he understood “your coming is not for trade, but to invade my people and possess my country.” In the winter of 1609-10, without the aid of the tribe, the starving colonists turned to cannibalism. Pocahontas never married Smith (who exaggerated their relationship in his memoirs), but rather, years later, another Jamestown colonist, a tobacco cropper named John Rolfe. She took the Christian name Rebecca and died of an illness on a trip to England.

This history is hardly ever acknowledged. Instead, the image and idea of Pocahontas is of a scantily clad cartoon, singing of the colors of the wind.

Cherokee playwright and attorney Mary Katherine Nagle notes not only this marginalization of Native peoples and their histories, but the underlying sexualization of Native women so routinely tolerated today. She cites as an example rapper Nicki Minaj’s recent promotion of a sexualized cartoon depiction of Pocahontas on social media.

“I wonder what it means that Pocahontas is still abused as a sex symbol and as an insult,” Nagle writes. “I wonder what it means that her story and the stories of so many other Native women still haven’t been told.”

The sexualization of Native women comes at a high price. Today, more than 80 percent of Native women experience violence in their lifetime, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. More than one in three Native women are raped in their lifetime, more than twice the national average. So when the leader of the free world uses that sexualized depiciton to insult a rival, it’s troublesome to say the least. Better, then, to tell more contextualized stories that avoid stereotypes and dispel myths.

I, for one, would be thankful for that.

Wado.

Graham Lee Brewer is a contributing editor at High Country News and a member of the Cherokee Nation. 

High Country News Classifieds
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 25-year legacy of success...
  • PLANNING & BUILDING DIRECTOR
    Searching for candidates with a Bachelor's Degree in Planning, Community Development, or a related field with 7 years' experience in land use planning forums, including...
  • LAND CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Manage, develop and implement all stewardship and land management plans and activities on both private and public lands. Guide and direct comprehensive planning efforts, provide...
  • NEWS DIRECTOR
    Based in the state capitol, Boise State Public Radio is the premier NPR affiliate in Idaho. With 18 transmitters and translators, it reaches 2/3rds of...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FOR MOJAVE DESERT LAND TRUST
    Organization Background: The Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) is a non-profit 501(3)(c) organization, founded in 2006. Our mission is to protect the ecosystems of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...
  • FOREST STEWARDSHIP PROJECT DIRECTOR
    Become a force for nature and a healthy planet by joining the Arizona Chapter as Forest Stewardship Project Director. You will play a key role...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ranchers Stewardship Alliance is accepting applications for an Executive Director. This position will provide leadership to RSA, develop a fund raising plan, and effectively communicate...
  • EQUITY IN THE OUTDOORS COORDINATOR
    The Equity in the Outdoors Coordinator will lead community engagement, program implementation and development, and data collection for the Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement (EVOM). EVOM...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a personable individual who is passionate about conservation to join our Sandpoint Field Office. The Community Engagement Assistant will...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • EXPERIENTIAL EDUCATION INTERN/ASSISTANT
    Actively introduce students to Experiential Education, Outdoor Recreation, and Sustainability while engaging and challenging them to learn and participate in these diverse opportunities. Room, board,...
  • ENVIRONMENTAL INVESTIGATIVE MEDIA SERVICES
    In-depth investigations of polluters, lobbyists, regulators, elected officials and others focused on environmentally damaging projects in the U.S. and internationally. We specialize in mining projects,...
  • UNDEVELOPED 40 ACRES - SOUTHWEST COLORADO
    in beautiful Montezuma County.
  • TRUCK DRIVER
    Class A & B drivers, pass all DOT requirements and clean driving record
  • MARIA'S BOOKSHOP FOR SALE
    - Thriving Indie bookstore in the heart of Durango, Colorado. General bookstore with 34-year history as a community hub for Southwest region of CO. 1800...