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Will the real Pocahontas please stand up?

The descendants of the prominent Native American shrug their shoulders at the anniversary of her death this week.

NEW YORK // She is among the best known Native Americans in history, but the modern-day descendants of Pocahontas, who four centuries ago married an English colonist and sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, show little interest in her.

On March 21, ceremonies in the United States and England will mark 400 years since her death. But there will be no event to honour that date on the Pamunkey Indian Reservation in Virginia where her tribespeople now live.

“For the Pamunkey tribe, it’s not a big deal. She doesn’t mean a whole lot to us. Her contributions to our way of life didn’t really amount to much,” says Robert Gray, chief of the 100-person riverside community.

“We understand the English and Americans think highly of Pocahontas. We appreciate that it brings an interest to our tribe, but we just sit back and figure: if people want to worship a myth, then let them do it.”

The adulation elsewhere is clear. Disney’s 1995 movie about the free-spirited beauty won two Oscars and remains a children’s favourite. The arms of her bronze statue at the colonial site, Historic Jamestowne, have been buffed to a shine by thousands of caressing visitors over the years.

A controversial past

Yet, for the Pamunkey, who trace their origins through Pocahontas and her father, Wahunsenacawh, who led some 15,000 Powhatan tribespeople when English ships landed in 1607, the history of the unconventional young peacemaker is troublesome.

This is not just because Pocahontas symbolises a union between native American tribes and colonisers that ultimately left the natives decimated. It is also because she offers a handy way for many white Americans to gloss over a brutal past and an unhappy present.

The anniversary of her death comes as the Standing Rock Sioux tribe is losing a fight to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline from slicing through its reservation, and US President Donald Trump uses the name “Pocahontas” as a term of abuse.

Raye Zaragoza, a musician descended from Arizona’s Akimel O’odham people, wrote a protest song, In The River, to support demonstrators in North Dakota and alert countrymen who, she says, neglect the struggles of Native Americans.

“They watch the romanticised Disney movie and dress up like Pocahontas on Halloween, but they don’t know the true story behind it or any of the real culture and customs,” Zaragoza says.

“They think that the abuse, colonisation and genocide against Native Americans are in the past. But it wasn’t only 400 years ago; it’s still happening today.”

The fact that scholars, Disney, Trump and the Pamunkey tell different Pocahontas stories is testament to the lack of records about her life. Even her name is elusive – she was also known as Matoaka, Amonute and, later, Rebecca.

Her most often-cited story is probably apocryphal. According to anecdote, Pocahontas, aged about 11, saved the life of a captive, John Smith, by placing her head over his as her father, the chief, raised his war club to execute the English colonist.

Scholars note that Smith only penned his romance-tinged version of events years after they happened. In reality, it may have been a stage-managed ruse aimed at adopting Smith and his fellow colonists as tribute-payers in the Powhatan confederacy.

Undisputed facts

But some facts about Pocahontas are not disputed. Colonists described the youth cart-wheeling outside their fort at Jamestown, living up to her nickname, Pocahontas, the “playful one”. She was involved in relations between colonists and natives that swung from friendly food-trading to open warfare and kidnapping.

She was kidnapped and held for a year, during which time she converted to Christianity. She took the name Rebecca and married John Rolfe, a tobacco grower, in 1614. They had a son and travelled to England to promote the colony to investors at fancy London soirees.

The only known image of Pocahontas shows her decked out in a trendy lace collar, ostrich feathers and other fineries – the poster child of a “civilised savage” who advertised New World opportunities to everyone from plantation owners to Anglican ministers.

It was short-lived, however. On her way back to Virginia, Pocahontas became ill and died in Gravesend, Kent, in 1617. Back home, the Powhatan confederacy rapidly declined in the 1620s under the onslaught of English colonisation.

For Chief Gray, she is a character to whom many narratives can be attached, though her embrace of a foreign faith and culture that displaced her own people renders her peripheral to Pamunkey culture.

“Some people could say she was a victim, a hero, a traitor,” says Gray, who was elected chief in June 2015, one month before the tribe won federal recognition. “But there’s not enough documentation, we just don’t know what she was thinking back then.”

Her legacy among mainstream Americans is very different. Like the fable of Thanksgiving turkeys, the Disney-fied tale of inter-racial ardour and a harmony between two peoples offers a palatable version of early US history, says scholar James Horn.

“It’s a fantasy, and very much a white fantasy about two peoples uniting,” Horn, a British historian and president and chief officer of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation, reflects.

“On the other hand, you’ve got the reality of repeated wars throughout not only the 17th century, but the establishment of a pattern of murders and dispossession in early Virginia that continued all the way down to the 19th century.”

By one estimate, the conquest of the Americas wiped out 95 percent of the indigenous population. The guns and swords of Europeans were obvious causes, although smallpox and other bugs that accompanied them probably claimed many more lives.

Legacy of conquest

A legacy of marginalisation lives on in the US today. Some 5.2 million people – 1.7 percent of the US population – identified as Native American or Alaska Native, according to the most recent Census Bureau data from 2010. According to Pew Research Centre, one in four of them lived in poverty in 2012.

On the campaign trail in 2016, President Trump tapped in to resentment among some whites that Native Americans unfairly benefit from tax-free petrol, casino-building rights and other breaks from Washington.

The Republican billionaire repeatedly mocked Massachusetts Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren’s claim of Cherokee ancestry by referring to her as “Pocahontas” while some of his rally crowds erupted in war whoops.

Since the inauguration, the White House web page on Native Americans has been removed and Trump has signed an executive order to clear the way for the $3.8bn Dakota Access Pipeline to proceed.

While stoking fears of Middle Eastern refugees being terrorists, and of undocumented Mexican immigrants being “bad hombres”, scholar Jim Rice says Trump also feeds on antipathy towards Native Americans among his mostly-white fan base.

“There is a widespread and profound ignorance of Native Americans that often goes so far as to think that there are no legitimately native people left, because they drive cars and have cell phones,” Rice, from Tufts University, says.

“Many people feel that Native Americans have had centuries to get over it and should no longer have what are often termed as special privileges, but are in fact constitutional or treaty rights.”

In England, the Pocahontas story is different once again.

The life-size bronze statue of Pocahontas at St George’s church in Gravesend has had its entry on the national heritage list updated and the British Library hosted a “packed day” of screenings and debates on March 18.

For British writer Kieran Knowles, whose play, Gravesend, will be read aloud there on the anniversary, the four-century mark is a rare opportunity to spotlight a run-down town of “just pound stores and charity shops all the way down”, he says.

It is also worth noting that the Pamunkey were not always so aloof about Pocahontas. Chief Gray himself spoke in London about how, in the 19th and 20th centuries, the tribe promoted an already-popular character to ingratiate themselves with mainstream America.

But that has given way to more recent efforts to “reinvigorate the language” and look back before Pocahontas to revive the pottery, shad fishing, hunting and farming skills that “have been lost from 500 years or so ago”, Gray explains.

By downplaying Pocahontas, the Pamunkey are “pushing back on the over-estimation of her importance by non-native people”, says Rice.

For him, Pocahontas is an ideal character for the nexus between historical fact, belief and present-day storytelling. Four centuries after her death, it seems that we have not yet exhausted the Pocahontas story trove.

“If we knew a little less about her, there wouldn’t be enough purchase for us to really talk and think about her so much,” Rice says. “But if we knew any more about her, we couldn’t so readily project our own concerns and preconceptions on to her.”

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera.

The seven biggest threats to Donald Trump’s presidency

The mass of protesters converging for Trump’s inauguration is not his only headache.

NEW YORK // US President Barack Obama’s inauguration shows featured the likes of Beyonce and Bruce Springsteen. Country singer Toby Keith, who is perhaps the top name at Donald Trump’s welcome bash, does not come with quite the same stardust.

But, sadly for Trump, his kudos among pop stars is not his biggest problem. The president-elect will take the oath of office on January 20 amid widespread scepticism from the public and with ready-made enemies in US spy agencies, the business community and even his own Republican Party.

On the surface, Trump’s feisty use of Twitter and his bullish handling of reporters at a recent press conference make him look the alpha male. But his bravado masks vulnerabilities seldom seen by those about to enter the Oval Office.

Before the billionaire property magnate is sworn in on the steps of the US Capitol on Friday, Al Jazeera spoke to Washington insiders about the headaches Trump is likely to suffer during his first 100 days of rolling out plans to make America great again.

1. Public opinion
Trump lost the popular vote on November 8 by 2.9 million votes, only winning the election via a superior tally in the Electoral College. The latest CBS News poll showed only 32 percent of respondents had a favourable view of him, lower than George W Bush (44 percent) and Obama (60 percent) when they were first sworn in.

According to Pew Research Center, most Americans want Trump to publish his tax returns, worry about him using the Oval Office to line his pockets and think he has explained his policy goals poorly. Others fret about his impulsive behaviour, which was on show again with recent Twitter tirades against the actress Meryl Streep, and John Lewis, a civil rights icon.

Trump’s efforts to reopen factories on US soil are popular in mostly white rust-belt zones, but his appeal in these areas may ebb as he cuts healthcare plans for the poor. “Those who voted for him will soon see that his policies will impact them negatively as well,” Susan Smith, from the Muslim Peace Fellowship, a think-tank, told Al Jazeera.

2. Protesters
Not everyone heading to Washington on Friday will cheer the 45th president’s oath-taking. Officials have struggled to find enough space for protesters to stage some 25 rallies over the weekend. The biggest is the Women’s March on Washington, which will draw some 200,000 people decrying threats to abortion laws, affordable healthcare and equal pay.

Other groups will spotlight everything from ending war to legalising marijuana. Environmentalists are irked by Trump’s claim that climate change is a Chinese hoax. Big rallies will also take place in Los Angeles, Chicago and other major cities in the US and globally.

Veteran protester Paul Kawika Martin, from the anti-war group Peace Action, was sceptical about the impact of rallies, which are not likely to match the scale of those against the Iraq War of 2003. “Big street protests are slowly going the way of dinosaurs,” Martin told Al Jazeera.

Others activists, such as Khury Petersen-Smith, praise recent gains made by the Black Lives Matter race justice movement and the Standing Rock oil pipeline protests.

“We cannot only put our faith in elected officials,” Petersen-Smith told Al Jazeera. “We need to harness grassroots power, keep immigration police out, turn college campuses into sanctuaries and work locally to create pockets of resistance.”

Of course, hundreds of thousands of others will head to the capital to root for the next commander-in-chief, including the motorcycle cavalcade Bikers for Trump and the attendees of the Deploraball shindig.

3. Republicans
Trump’s fans were always the grassroots folk who turned out in droves to his campaign rallies, not well-heeled apparatchiks in Washington. The latter would have preferred Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio or another established Republican candidate to lead the party.

That said, members are broadly falling into line behind Trump in pursuit of nixing Obamacare and other bullet points on the right’s agenda. But troubles persist. Rubio and John McCain, an Arizona senator, kicked up a fuss during hearings for Trump’s appointees.

They worry about Kremlin-backed hackers swinging the election and Trump’s admiration of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Others fear Trump’s antipathy to trade deals and his sniping at European and Asian allies. Pundits question whether members will tire of his excesses and pro-Moscow outlook, and point to soon-to-be Vice President Mike Pence as a potential successor.

“Trump gives the far-right most of the policies that it wants, but he’s also deeply problematic,” Jonathan Cristol, a fellow at the World Policy Institute think-tank, told Al Jazeera. “Pence will also deliver what they want, while also being a typical, bland, mid-western, far-right-leaning Republican.”

4. Democrats
The election effectively handed Republicans dominance of the White House, Congress and Supreme Court. Many Democrats are now second-guessing the choice of Hillary Clinton to run against Trump over the affable leftist Bernie Sanders, and wondering whether the party should swing left.

Dozens of Democrat politicians will boycott the inauguration as the Trump backlash begins.

“The Democrats went into post-election shock, but that will wear off as they retreat, strategise, get re-energised and return,” said Martin. “They won the popular vote in November and will look to make significant gains in the House of Representatives in the 2018 mid-term elections.”

5. Liberal mayors
Democrats lost big in the election, but still hold sway in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and other US metropolises. These hubs have track records for blocking federal government immigration crackdowns and have earned monikers as “sanctuary cities”.

Trump, meanwhile, has talked of deporting “bad hombres” among the US’ 11 million undocumented migrants, creating Muslim registries and re-introducing the “stop-and-frisk” policing tactic that can single out blacks and Latinos.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio rejected such policies and said he would refuse to let Trump “tear families apart”. Other Democrat mayors agreed, and can limit cooperation with the US Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other deportation agencies.

“If mayors stand up, like so many have, we can block deportation forces from entering our cities, looking for undocumented people, kicking down doors and breaking up families,” Cathy Schneider, an urban politics scholar at American University, told Al Jazeera.

“Our cities must become bastions of protection for our citizens and immigrants.”

Washington can retaliate by freezing funds to defiant mayors, but the outcome would be unpredictable and messy. “It’s hard to say who would win, but the administration must pick its battles carefully,” added Martin.

6. Spymasters
Intelligence chiefs are doubtless bad people to irk.

Trump did just this when he said he was a “smart person” who did not need the daily intelligence digests that his predecessors received. This month, US spooks said Russia tried to sway the election outcome in Trump’s favour by hacking and other means.

Trump rejected their conclusion and slammed them for the bogus reports of mass-casualty weapons that led to the Iraq war. His links to Moscow faced renewed scrutiny after an unsubstantiated report that Russia had compromising evidence against Trump.

“We will see more leaks to the press about the ineptitude of the Trump administration and about Trump’s ties to Russia as time goes by,” said Cristol.

Washington bureaucrats are not likely to confront Trump directly, but have other weapons, said Martin. “They know the system and how to resist what they don’t like. We see this happening in the intelligence community already; and there’s more pushback to come.”

7. Corporations
So far, businesses are dancing to Trump’s beat. General Motors, Wal-Mart and others have announced plans for job-creation or re-locating factories to US soil. This is in line with Trump’s plans to create US jobs and build home-grown manufacturing by taxing imports.

They also fear his wrath: Trump’s criticism that drug firms were over-charging for medicines saw their stock tumble. It works for now, but executives may turn on Trump should his mooted trade war with China go awry, disrupt the global supply chains that enable much US business and ultimately hurt US workers.

“If Trump messes up the world economy, there’ll be lots of rich, powerful corporations with legions of lobbyists to resist him,” said Martin.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera.