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
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • WYOMING COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS COORDINATOR
    The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is seeking Coordinator to implement public education and advocacy campaigns in the Cowboy State to unite and amplify hunter, angler,...
  • ASSISTANT TOWN ATTORNEY
    Town of Jackson, Wyoming, $66,700 - $88,000 DOQ, full benefits. Law Degree Required. Rental housing options available. For a complete job description and to apply,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...