Almost 400 years after the death of Pocahontas, we continue to abuse her identity. Almost all of the ideas Americans have about her are fantasies, revealing much more about how we view race relations and women’s rights than anything about the young Powhatan woman.
The repeated use of “Pocahontas” by Donald Trump as a racially misogynistic slur, meant to cast doubt on the trustworthiness of Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren, only adds to the pile.
The actual Pocahontas was sexually appropriated by Capt. John Smith from the time they met, in 1607, when she was no more than 11 years old. Smith portrayed her as a “nubile and sexy” teenager in his writings, titillating English appetites for stories of adventure and sexual conquest, according to her biographer, Camilla Townsend. Smith’s mischaracterizations prevent historians from verifying the central event in the lore he fostered: the moment when Smith said she prevented his execution at the hands of her father, the leader of the Powhatan Confederacy.
We do know that she was kidnapped at 17 by Capt. Samuel Argall to be used as leverage against her father; that she converted to Christianity a year later; and that she married a wealthy Virginian, John Rolfe, only to die in England, at 21, in 1617. Her husband died soon thereafter. Their child, Thomas, came to know his maternal relatives but identified as English. He was among the first of countless Americans with mixed heritage who sided with the colonists, thereby denying his descendants a claim to tribal citizenship.
More than 90 percent of native people, including the Powhatans, would, like Pocahontas, succumb to European disease between 1492 and 1800. Their complex and harrowing lives were far more interesting than the Walt Disney Co. or the presumptive Republican presidential nominee could imagine.
While Disney adapted Capt. Smith’s tale to project a fanciful, feel-good message about cross-cultural love and understanding, Trump’s cynical effort to deflect criticism from his Democratic heckler-in-chief reaches back to the patriarchal, racialized politics of America in the 19th century.
These appeals reinvigorate sinister claims on our collective identity: Do we Americans belong to the culturally plural, multiracial democracy President Abraham Lincoln envisioned when he fused the hopeful Declaration of Independence to the restrictive U.S. Constitution? Or is our democracy a racist enterprise, meant to foster and protect the interests of white property owners, as President Andrew Jackson advocated when he forced Native Americans from their homelands, saying “they and my white children are too near each other to live in harmony and peace.”
With the Indian Removal Act of 1830, Jackson ethnically cleansed the eastern half of North America. Tens of thousands of people were removed to what was then called Indian Territory. Thirty-one of the federally recognized tribes in present-day Oklahoma joined eight native tribes whose lands were already being carved up and claimed by whites.
Government-funded assimilation programs reached their apex between 1892 and 1907, when Elizabeth Warren’s grandfather, Harry Reed, lived in the territory’s Cherokee Nation. Tribal governments were dissolved, and discrimination and violence were constant concerns. “Competency” – a legal term enabling American Indians to sell their own land, run a business or simply be left alone – was initially determined by the degree of Indian blood in a person’s veins.
For these and many other reasons, it would only be logical if Reed denied his Native identity and passed as white, so that he might prosper as a carpenter. And, while Warren and some of her cousins have recalled being told their grandfather had Cherokee and Delaware blood (the Delaware Tribe of Kansas was consolidated into the Cherokee Nation after the Civil War), it should surprise no one that other Reed descendants deny this.
Now another Warren opponent and Trump surrogate, former Republican Sen. Scott Brown, who lost his Senate seat to Warren in 2012, says Warren should prove her heritage through a DNA test. But Native American identity is multifaceted, and genes capture even less of it than fixed ideas about pre-colonial culture.
Regardless, we should all be aware of the real message behind Trump’s use of Pocahontas as a demeaning label, one that blends racial animus with assertions that women are inferior. Our society cannot afford to return to the racism and misogyny of the 19th century.
Alternatively, we might embrace the real Pocahontas: kidnapped, sexually appropriated and ultimately killed amid the trauma of colonialism. By choosing nonfiction over fiction, reality over rhetoric, we Americans might finally come to terms with, and repudiate, this terrible legacy.
Stephen Warren is an associate professor of history and American studies at the University of Iowa. He wrote this for the Chicago Tribune.