I Googled “Pocahontas” this morning and was presented with political commentary galore about the president’s joke on November 27, 2017 while honoring the living Native American code talkers at the White House. The first page of my Google results carried four resources for the actual historic woman called Pocahontas, eleven results referring to the president’s statement, the IMDb of Disney’s animated movie and a prominent image of the cartoon version of the Powhatan princess. I am not surprised that the search results are dominated by political stories, in fact that is the reason I searched in the first place. I knew it would be the case.
The second thing I Googled was legitimate information about Senator Elizabeth Warren. As expected, the results were dominated by the nickname of Pocahontas that President Trump bestowed on Warren due to her claim of Native American ancestry, and one post from a news organization calling out the press for ignoring the senator’s “cultural appropriation.” What jumps out for me most is of course the lack of respect in general for the historical woman Pocahontas, but also for the native people in America whose culture has been used and abused since my ancestors first set foot on the continent.
I, like Senator Warren, have been told my entire life that my father is part Cherokee. Recent DNA tests taken by me and my siblings however tell a different story. There is always the possibility that the blood relation referred to in these family stories did not have a significant amount to be recognized in the first place. That doesn’t make the stories untrue, simply ill supported. It is not for any of us to say that Senator Warren is or is not carrying native American DNA. What is important is that we are telling the truth about the issue. Elizabeth Warren never used her believed heritage to further her education or career. According to Snopes.com, that fact is made clear by Charles Fried of the Harvard appointing committee who indicates that heritage is not a part of the selection saying, “It was not mentioned and I did not mention it to the faculty.”
President Trump, borrowing the ammunition used by Scott Brown in the 2012 senate race against Warren, took the claim of native American heritage and blew it up even further by nicknaming Warren “Pocahontas,” a label that has stuck with her since. The use of the name belittles the heritage that many Americans lay claim to, and reduces the name of the real Pocahontas to a caricature (although, to be fair Disney had a head start on doing that). To cry in outrage at Warren’s use of a minute amount of DNA to establish a part of her cultural heritage, but allow Trump’s blatant racial slur in his flippant use of a historical figure’s name to go without reproach is low at best, un-American at worst. The irony of Trump’s “joke” in referring to Warren and his nickname for her, spoken to native American code talkers during a ceremony honoring them on Thanksgiving weekend, sticks out to all of us like a sore thumb.
We are slowly improving our educational material to tell more truth. Our children should be learning facts about the country they live in. Thanksgiving can remain a holiday about being thankful, but it should no longer include the lie about gracious pilgrims. Instead we should be telling the truth about grateful pilgrims who are alive because of the giving native people. At a time when marginalized Americans are finding their voices, it seems that those privileged few doing the ostracizing continue to hammer the same old tired nails. The thing to remember is that those nails are going into their own political and social coffins. We the people will continue to improve our society with or without the powers that be.