Sunday, December 17, 2017

How Trump's use of Pocahontas has roots in rural inequality

By now, we are all familiar with President Donald Trump's use of Pocahontas's name as an attack on Senator Elizabeth Warren and her supposed Cherokee heritage. Trump, who most recently invoked her name during a ceremony to honor the Navajo code talkers, made attacks on Senator Warren a centerpiece of his presidential campaign. Trump's usage of the Pocahontas's name is deeply problematic. It represents the weaponization of the name of a young girl who experienced unspeakable horrors and disrespect to the many who experienced similar. The story of Pocahontas is also wrapped up in the racial subjugation of the rural South and the near eradication of coastal southeastern Native peoples by European colonization.

The story of Pocahontas is perhaps one of the most famous stories in American lore. As told by Disney and other outlets, we are led to believe that Pocahontas and John Smith helped to bring about the peaceful resolution to conflict between the Jamestown settlers and the Powhatan Confederacy. The Disney story even involves a romance between the two, which has never been corroborated and is highly unlikely given that Pocahontas would have been between ten and thirteen years old when she first met John Smith. The simplistic narrative that we have been taught also obscures the fact that Pocahontas was captured, forcibly removed from her tribe, and married off to John Rolfe before dying at the age of 21. Pocahontas's child was never raised in the culture of his tribe and instead assimilated into English culture. His descendants would later rise to prominence in Virginia culture and include Senator Harry Flood Byrd and First Lady Edith Boling Wilson.

When Virginia passed the Racial Integrity Act in 1924, they only allowed for two racial classifications, white and "colored" (which included Native and African Americans). Virginia State Public Health Officer, Dr. Walter Ashby Plecker justified the inclusion of Natives in the "colored" group by saying that he felt that there were no "pure blood Virginia Indians" and he had to protect against African Americans falsely claiming to be Native. This stance is contradictory to the supposed government to government relationship that the Commonwealth of Virginia had with the Pamunkey and Mattaponi Tribes and was essentially what would later be described by Pamunkey Chief Kevin Brown as "paper genocide." In crafting the act, the Virginia legislature failed to consult, or even consider, the actual tribal people who remained in the state. However, due to the social capital gained by claiming to be a descendent of Pocahontas, the Virginia legislature did carve out an exemption in the statute that allowed people with "one-sixteenth or less of American Indian blood" to be designed as "white." The lesson was that it was okay to have Native ancestry, just not too much Native ancestry and you certainly could not be culturally Native.

Virginia's designation of Native people as "colored" though was only the codification of a long standing practice in Southern states. My own Lumbee ancestors were marked by the United States Census as "free persons of color" prior to the Civil War and only received recognition as "Indian" in the 1880s when it proved advantageous for the Southern Democrats in North Carolina, who felt that a unified "colored" population would prove disastrous for white supremacists in Robeson County, North Carolina. Without consulting the actual people involved, North Carolina's politicians would go to the federal government and propose various identities for the Lumbee people, including such absurdities as displaced Cherokees and descendants of the Lost Colony. Even in recognizing a Native "identity," North Carolina's white politicians still disregarded actual Native people.

As an aside, the policy of the United States government more broadly has historically heavily favored the erasure of Native culture and identity. When proposing the creation of boarding schools that would "Christianize" Native people, Captain Richard Henry Pratt said that it was important to "kill the Indian and save the man." As during the era of Pocahontas, the boarding schools took Native children from their homes and forced them into a strange land, away from their families with the intent of erasing their culture. The mortality rate among children in boarding schools was also absurdly high, a continuation of the grotesque legacy that began with Pocahontas.

Tribes in the Southeastern United States also bore the brunt of early colonization. Many tribes in the eastern United States were never fully recognized by the British and later American governments or if they were recognized, they were later thought to be "extinct." The descendants of Pocahontas's tribe, the Pamunkey, were not formally recognized by the United States government until 2015. To survive, many tribes migrated to areas that were thought impassable, such as swamps, to avoid European settlers. The Seminole Tribe of Florida most famously has their roots in being an amalgamation of tribes that sought refuge in the then-unexplored swamps of Florida. Other tribes migrated to different, more in-land parts of the country, such as the Tuscarora who left coastal North Carolina to join the Iroquois Confederacy in Western New York.

The fact that President Trump invoked the name of Pocahontas while standing in front of a portrait of President Andrew Jackson is also deeply problematic. It is impossible to discuss the attempted erasure of Southeastern Native people without discussing the Indian Removal Act, which precipitated the 'Trail of Tears." The Indian Removal Act created the legal justification for the removal of Native peoples from their homelands and to the "Indian Territory" (modern day Oklahoma) and many died while being forcibly removed from their homes by the United States military. In being forcibly removed from their homes, they were also being removed from their cultures, which were often tied to their land.

When Donald Trump slurs Elizabeth Warren by calling her "Pocahontas," he is invoking the name of a young girl who was taken captive by strangers from a strange land and married off into a strange culture before dying a premature death. In her short life, Pocahontas experienced unspeakable horror and incomprehensible isolation. Pocahontas's short life is also deeply symbolic and representative of the lives of thousands, if not millions, of Native people whose names have been lost to history. It is also representative of the erasure of Native identity. The removal of Native peoples from their lands, forcing them into boarding schools, and the resulting death and destruction are all things that started when the English arrived on the shores of Virginia and it all began with the English and their treatment of Pocahontas.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Govt officials from the previous administration & the MSM media obliterate rural Americans with slurs like deplorable, stupid, uneducated, inbreds, y'all qaeda, taliban-jo, welfare rancher to infer that rural Americans deserve all the injustices put upon them & none of protections under the constitution.

This politically-correct bigotry serves a purpose -

- to keep the mainstream population indifferent to the atrocities that have been experienced by farmers & ranchers at the hand of the govt - especially the last 7 years.

If you own a condo - you own the unit - not the building or the land it sits on, your fees go to property management - like a split estate.

Then the property management reduces your parking spaces, then cuts off your water because your reduced parking spaces makes you ineligible for water service, and you must sign an agreement to those conditions before the HOA will accept your fees.

That's what a lot of ranchers have gone through over the decades.

BLM cuts back on # of cows allowed, the revokes water rights because they don't have enough cows. Then won't accept fees unless agreement is signed.

Grazing allotments are split estates - private surface rights, federal/state subsurface & mineral rights.

The BLM fees are land management fees - half goes to maintenance of that said allotment.

The allotments are transferable to heirs, who must pay inheritance taxes on the allotments - proof allotments are private property.

In it's own documents, the BLM often refers to these split estates as privately owned surface estates.

The BLM & other govt agencies blatantly abused their power by regularly engaging In misconduct that's hurt a lot of rural Americans, & the gov't - along with the media - just laugh & insult farmers & ranchers, to further endorse the abuse.