The name of Pocahontas is not a slur, though that’s what news outlets and Sen. Elizabeth Warren have repeatedly said following President Trump’s comment on Monday.
It is a name that recalls a moment in history when the people of two nations from two hemispheres met for the first time in the Virginia Tidewater region just 163 miles from Washington, D.C.
Pocahontas was the nickname of a child that oral histories of the Powhatan people say meant “mischievous one.” And it was, we are told, an apt description of the young girl who bore it more than 400 years ago: a girl who fearlessly entered the strange community of the English and turned cartwheels and played with the English children.
Pocahontas is the name of a young woman who, according to the oral histories of her people, was imprisoned in Jamestown, Virginia, by English colonists who killed her husband, took her baby from her, and then raped her in captivity, perhaps numerous times, after which she gave birth in captivity to a child of these rapes. All the while, these captors claimed to be turning her into a “civilized” Christian woman and rechristened her Rebecca.
And why was she kidnapped? We must remember why these English colonists were on these shores and why they felt driven to steal her. Their colony was not making a profit for their investors, the Virginia Company of London. They kidnapped her to negotiate with her father—the chief of a powerful confederacy of Powhatan villages—for access to more land and better trading rights.
The company later paid to ship her to England in order to show potential investors that their investment was a good one, that Indians were not a threat, and, as an added moral incentive, that they were adding souls to heaven. But Pocahontas never returned home: She died suddenly and was buried at Gravesend, England. She was 21 years old. When her tribe asked for her remains to be returned in the 20th century, the church said they did not know where she was buried.
In some counties, the rate of murder is 10 times the national average.
So Pocahontas is not a slur. What it is is a reminder of the untold numbers of Native women who are lost to our communities every year. According to a 2008 Department of Justice report, 1 in 3 Native women will experience sexual assault, rape, and/or murder. In some counties the rate of murder is 10 times the national average. Another DOJ report shows that 70 percent of these rapes and murders are done by non-Native men, including white men. This is unusual as most women are raped and murdered by men of their own race/ethnicity.
Pocahontas was one of the earliest and most famous missing and murdered indigenous women (#MMIW) who disappear from Native American communities every year. This includes literally millions of indigenous women over the history of the colonization of our lands now called the United States.
It was in defense of these communities, our communities, that generations of Native Americans, like the Navajo Code Talkers, have joined the United States military to fight to protect. This is why we honor them and expect that sacrifice to be honored and not to be used for cheap political potshots, as Donald Trump did on Monday.
My father, my grandfather, and my great-grandfather—all Yankton Sioux tribal members (Ihanktonwan Dakota)—served in the Army. My great-grandfather Keeler and his twin brother served in World War I even though they were not recognized at the time as U.S. citizens. My mother’s Navajo family have code talkers (my cousin’s late grandfather Dan Akee). Both sides of my family have members who stormed the beaches of Normandy and waded onto the shores of Europe knee-deep in the blood of their comrades—lifelong friends and cousins who never returned to us and are buried today in France.
So, Sen. Warren, the next time (according to some, this is the 26th time he’s done this) President Trump calls you Pocahontas, don’t stop with, “He seems to think that that’s somehow going to shut me up. … He’s wrong.”
Use the moment and media attention to change the message.
Instead, use the moment and media attention to change the message and remember an MMIW like Olivia Lone Bear, 32, a Native American mother who has been missing for nearly a month after disappearing from the Fort Berthold reservation in North Dakota.
Her family has been leading the search for her over a vast reservation totaling nearly 1 million acres. According to reporting by The Bismarck Tribune, family members have said that law enforcement has not treated the search for Lone Bear with enough urgency. Meanwhile, investigators have said their “role has been limited because there’s no evidence.”
Lone Bear lives in the midst of the Bakken, where “man camps”—temporary housing for oil workers—and pursuit of fracked oil and profits have led to another epidemic of violence and murder of Native American women.
So, Sen. Warren, I’m asking you: Mention Lone Bear’s name. This is what the name of Pocahontas really means.
And wouldn’t Trump hate that? The master of redirection having his messaging redirected?
By the way, Sen. Warren, give ’em hell and keep fighting for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But also, just a bit of advice, I’d recommend formally apologizing to the Cherokee Nation.
Jacqueline Keeler is an award-winning Diné/Ihanktonwan journalist and the editor of The Edge of Morning: Native Voices Speak for the Bears Ears.