I’ve been meaning to write for weeks about Donald Trump’s nickname for Elizabeth Warren. As a historian who has written a few books that include some Algonquian (Eastern woodlands Indian) history, and a lot of women’s history, it’s been on my mind.
But first, a little background: last month, Trump started calling her Pocahontas, intending to smear her for once checking a box on an employment form claiming Native American ancestry:
Trump is referring to a controversy Warren faced over her ancestry during her 2012 Senate campaign.
Warren says she grew up being told that she had Cherokee heritage. “Everyone on our mother’s side — aunts, uncles, and grandparents — talked openly about their Native American ancestry,” she wrote in her 2014 book, A Fighting Chance. “My brothers and I grew up on stories about our grandfather building one-room schoolhouses and about our grandparents’ courtship and their early lives together in Indian Territory.”
This became an issue during her campaign when reports emerged that Harvard had once touted her Native American heritage as proof of its faculty’s diversity. Warren, however, couldn’t produce definitive proof of her Cherokee ancestry, and neither could genealogists.
This led to speculation that Warren had been a fake “diversity hire,” or that she had abused the affirmative-action system to gain an advantage over other candidates.
Well, Warren is from Oklahoma, home of the Cherokee Nation since the Indian Removal Act (1830) and the Trail of Tears (1838-39)! And there are a lot of white Americans who are told they have a Cherokee grandmother somewhere in their family tree. (In fact, it’s kind of a clichéd fantasy. Why do so few people boast of having a Cherokee grandfather? This blog post explains why, and I agree: in short, “colonialism.” I’d be inclined to put Warren’s claims of Cherokee ancestry down to naivety and a little credulity, but not to malice or ambition. (Ask Indians how much of a boost it is to be a Native American when looking for a job.)
Trump seems to think that sneeringly referring to Warren as “Pocahontas” is an insult, when throughout American history, elite white families have been eager to claim direct descent through her son, Thomas, with her English husband John Rolfe. (Americans still love to hope or believe they’re descended from Pocahontas–just Google it sometime.) Even when Anglo-Americans were at war with various Native American nations–that is, for the majority of American history–white people have clamored to associate themselves with the first and most glamorous dynastic marriage in Anglo-American history.
It wasn’t because they loved living Indian people who were still alive or wanted to live near or with them. It was because Pocahontas was and still is a safe fantasy ancestor for the reasons suggested in the “Cherokee Grandmother” blog post above: Pocahontas is a vivid example of the power and promise of European colonialism. Yes, she was born Matoaka, the daughter of the powerful Sachem, Powhatan (although as Camilla Townsend explains in her 2005 biography, Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma, she was probably not the child of one of his more favored or high-status wives.) She undoubtedly did the best she could for herself and her family in a time of international conflict, environmental stress, and warfare, as Townsend argues.
Pocahontas was many things, but above all she was a colonized body many times over: 1) she was a captive of war of the English and 2) a baptized Christian before she was married to Rolfe and 3) brought to London like a colonial curiosity, and then most tragically, 4) one of the first of millions of Native American victims of smallpox. In short, she was viewed by the English as a trophy of their colonial might in life and in death. (To be clear, Warren has never called herself a descendant of Pocahontas.)
There’s a reason Americans like to love Pocahontas, the war captive-Christian convert-dutiful wife-and tragic-death Pocahontas. She embodies the white American fantasy of the vanishing Indian, one who was vanquished and then vanished in the blink of an eye, three years before the Pilgrims founded Plymouth: they were so good, then so tragically gone, and now the land is ours.
Using her name like an insult isn’t an insult to Elizabeth Warren; it’s a shocking display of contempt for the tragedies inherent to colonialism, and for the centuries of Native American women’s suffering that Pocahontas’s life and death symbolize. Would Trump sneeringly call someone an “Anne Frank” for mistakenly believing she had Jewish ancestry? Would he viciously spit out the name “Sojourner Truth” if she claimed enslaved ancestors? Probably not–history equals tragedy plus time, after all, but we all know how addicted to insulting women Trump is.
We in the majority, the decent Americans, should remember the real history of Pocahontas, a child war captive and teenage bride who died trying to make peace with the English colonial vanguard. As Townsend’s book makes clear, she must have been a child, a teenager, and a young woman of incredible intelligence, tact, and political and diplomatic judgment beyond her years. Would that Trump thought she was worth emulating rather than insulting and belittling her.