The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Pocahontas — the myth and the slur — props up white supremacy

The roots of the attacks on Elizabeth Warren.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) addresses a town hall meeting in Roxbury, Mass., on Oct. 13, 2018. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP)

Sen. Elizabeth Warren released the results of a DNA test this past week to confirm what she has long claimed: She has some Native American ancestry in her family tree.

The test, performed by Stanford geneticist Carlos Bustamante, identified trace evidence of indigenous ancestry, a revelation so vague that it carries no legal significance for any contemporary tribe and so generic that it indicates very little. While the political consequences of Warren’s decision to release the test’s results remain to be seen, her motivations for taking it are clear: The Massachusetts Democrat pursued the test because President Trump has nicknamed her “Pocahontas” and turned it into a punchline, one intended to demean, ridicule and minimize her personal and political legitimacy.

People all along the political spectrum have criticized Trump for wielding the moniker “Pocahontas” as a weapon. It is crass and degrading of Native American people. But this is not just a racial joke made in poor taste.

Trump’s choice of “Pocahontas” reflects a deeply complicated history of ancestry and white racial fantasy. White Americans have long been familiar with the story of Pocahontas, most recently through Disney’s 1995 film, which turned her into an ethnic, feel-good cartoon. Grade-school children can recite the bullet points of her history: She was the 17th-century daughter of Powhatan who negotiated with the English at Jamestown, married an English colonist and converted to Christianity. But this narrative has always been a distorted projection of Anglo-American desires rather than a portrait of the real Pocahontas.

Long before Disney, white American popular culture mobilized myths about Pocahontas to serve purposes ranging from colonial conquest to Civil War, and from racial segregation to white supremacy. Each usage promoted an unequal society that benefited whites at the expense of indigenous peoples and African Americans. Trump’s use of the name “Pocahontas” to serve his politics of racial division fits right into this historical trajectory. His cooptation of her name is just the latest example of how those in power manipulate indigenous history and how white people historically have claimed the right to define what it means to be Native American.

The story of Pocahontas, perversely, first became a symbol of national pride among white Americans during an era of forced Indian removal. The celebration of her imagined past helped deflect attention from the brutality of genocidal policies. In 1837, Congress commissioned an artist named John Gadsby Chapman to paint a massive mural for the Rotunda of the Capitol. Chapman chose as his subject the “Baptism of Pocahontas,” a rich image in which Pocahontas kneels luminous in a gleaming white dress, hands on her heart, head bowed in prayer, accepting the superiority of English Christianity.

At the same time Chapman was working on his Pocahontas masterpiece, however, the federal government was rounding up native people from ancestral lands throughout the Southeast and marching them to reservations in the Oklahoma Territory. By the time his painting was installed in the Rotunda (where it remains today), the U.S. Army had removed more than 45,000 Southeastern Indian people from their homes and forced 4,000 native people to march to their death. This marked the beginning of a pattern in which white Americans would venerate the history of Pocahontas while simultaneously mistreating indigenous people and promoting white-supremacist policies.

The government bulldozed my tribe’s sacred burial site. We want an apology.

The sectional crisis of the 1840s and 1850s prompted Northerners and Southerners alike to begin crafting stories of national origins. Northerners argued that the Puritans at Plymouth were national forebears, while Southerners claimed Jamestown as the site of American genesis.

In Confederate mythmaking, that made Pocahontas the mother of the South. She was a symbol of Southern exceptionalism, a link to royal ancestry, a queen among the heathen. As John Esten Cooke wrote in his 1861 poem “A Dream of the Cavaliers,” she was “Our own dear Pocahontas! Virgin Queen of the West — With the heart of a Christian hero, in a timid maiden’s breast!” An Indian who embraced the virtues of whiteness, her symbolic presence in the Confederate cause helped to justify the subjugation of nonwhite people. During the war, one Virginia cavalry unit went so far as to name itself “The Guard of the Daughters of Powhatan” and emblazoned an image of Pocahontas on its battle flag as it fought to preserve slavery.

In the decades after the Civil War, white Americans continued to fetishize Pocahontas as an Indian princess and a symbol of nativist pride. As immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe flooded to American shores, whites whose families had been here longer searched for ways to distinguish themselves as racially and ethnically superior to the newcomers. Pocahontas provided an ancestral touchstone from which white Americans could defend their racial and national superiority. That she herself was not white did not matter. She was venerated as the exceptional Indian who embraced English culture, welcomed English colonists onto North American shores and justified the dispossession of Indian land.

In 1887, former Virginia governor Wyndham Robertson published “Pocahontas and her Descendants” to assist those searching for ancestral connections to this most American of founding mothers. He noted that the descendants of Pocahontas ranked among the finest Americans, and therefore, he argued, she was clearly of superior stock. “History, poetry, and art,” Robertson wrote, “have vied with one another in investing her name from that day to the present with a halo of surpassing brightness.”

By the early 20th century, Pocahontas was fully embraced by the growing American eugenics movement. For those invested in white supremacy, Pocahontas was a link to an imagined English past and, thus, an important marker of status for elite families. As journalist and author Ella Loraine Dorsey explained in her 1906 book, “Pocahontas,” “It was not until the little Snow Feather of Powhata[n] took under her special care the English soldier Captain John Smith and his handful of adventurers, that the Anglo-Saxon race found a permanent foothold in the new world.”

Groups such as the First Families of Virginia, an invitation-only society of wealthy families claiming descent from Jamestown colonists, celebrated their genealogical connections to Pocahontas as a marker of their superior whiteness. When Virginia passed the Racial Integrity Act in 1924, though, this posed a problem. This deeply racist anti-miscegenation law divided society into two groups, “white” and “colored,” and classified racially mixed and indigenous Virginians as nonwhite. To circumvent the stigma of Jim Crow segregation, the First Families of Virginia demanded that the law contain a “Pocahontas exception” to ensure that they would maintain their Jamestown pedigrees and still be classified as fully white. This laid bare the absurdity of the Pocahontas myth: The group needed an exception to claim an indigenous woman as a symbol of their superiority over nonwhites, including actual Indian people living in Virginia.

So long as Trump continues to mock Warren as “Pocahontas,” conservatives will also continue to accuse her of using claims to indigenous ancestry, however problematic they have been, to gain unfair professional advantage, an argument that has never had merit. Even worse, such imagined critiques fail to acknowledge that the name and the myth of Pocahontas do have a long history of being used to secure unfair advantage: by white Americans. For centuries, the mythmaking that divorced an indigenous subject from her history has given an unfair advantage to those invested in the preservation of white supremacy. And if there is one thing Trump understands intuitively, it is how to manipulate a myth to gain undue personal advantage.