Tag Archives: Racism

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.


Picking up the pieces in riot-struck Ferguson

Residents count the cost of violence after black American teenager shot dead by white Missouri police officer.

FERGUSON, UNITED STATES // Webster Morris clears up broken glass from the night-time looting of his clothes store in central Ferguson Рthe epicentre of protests over the police killing of an unarmed black teenager that has turned increasingly violent.

The shattered windows of Fashions R are covered with plywood that is daubed with dripping red crosses and the words “Oh blood”, lyrics from a religious song. Glaziers are out of stock and new panes would get smashed anyway in ongoing protests, he said.

“We’re Christian but the people who are looting, they don’t care nothing about the Church,” Morris told Al Jazeera. “They wouldn’t care if we put Jesus himself up there. This ain’t about them. It’s about letting the community know we’re gonna stay.”

Like many in this downtrodden suburb of St Louis, Morris has conflicting views on the protests that followed the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, who was walking with a friend down a residential street on the afternoon of August 9.

Deploying the Missouri National Guard was a smart move, Morris said, if troops stop looters while letting peaceful protesters air grievances. But the killing of 18-year-old Brown fits a local narrative that white cops are “untouchable” in a mostly black neighbourhood, he added.

“If one of us had shot a police officer, we would be in jail and prosecuted,” said Sylvia Ekford, an assistant in Morris’ store.

‘One law for them, one law for us’

This perception of perverted justice echoes across Ferguson, after 11 days of increasingly violent protests that have resisted rubber bullets and tear gas and raised fresh questions about US race relations nearly six years after Americans elected their first black president.

The officer responsible, Darren Wilson, is not in jail but suspended with pay as the shooting is investigated. Some suggest Wilson may have acted in self-defence. Witnesses say Brown was shot while holding his arms up to surrender.

“The police have one law for them and one law for us,” said Sherman Hawkins, a cleaner, while sipping a beer in his parked car on West Florissant Avenue, a street of mostly fast-food joints, pawn shops and charity thrift stores.

“It’s meant to be the same for everybody. If it had been a black guy who shot somebody on the street, they would have been locked up straight away. So why’s he not in jail? That don’t make any sense.”

US President Barack Obama speaks of a “gulf of mistrust” between police and residents in places such as Ferguson. “In too many communities, too many young men of colour are left behind and seen only as objects of fear,” he said on Monday.

Ferguson, a suburb of some 21,000 people, has a long history of race tensions. Black residents, about 65 percent of town’s population, complain about bad schools, worse job prospects, and harassment from a police force that is 94 percent white.

‘Sundown towns’

Ekford said she sits in the store with doors open, watching the daily soap opera of police shakedowns.

“Let’s see how many times they stop people today. We take a tally and it’s always kids who can’t afford it, getting five or six tickets at a time, knowing that they can’t afford to pay it – $500 when they got jobs paying $8 or less an hour,” she told Al Jazeera.

“The police need the revenue, that’s why they’re writing up all these tickets.”

Jim Loewen, a former sociologist at the University of Vermont, said Ferguson’s race tensions are rooted in a history of so-called “sundown towns”. Police forced blacks to exit white-only suburbs before sunset during the segregation era.

Ferguson was 85 percent white in 1980, but a white-flight in recent decades swung the demographics to 67 percent black by 2012. White families left for whiter neighbourhoods in fear of crashing property prices as their community was ghettoised, he said.

“It’s a second-generation problem: an overwhelmingly white police force with sundown town attitudes. They racially profile. They think they can completely disregard people’s rights because they think they’re doing it in the service of their town,” Loewen told Al Jazeera.

Race is a factor. Black and white Americans view Ferguson’s protests differently. A Pew Research Center survey found that blacks are about twice as likely as whites to say that Brown’s shooting “raises important issues about race”. Whites are more likely to say it has been overblown.

Elizabeth Kneebone, a poverty analyst at Brookings Institute, said it is about money. As Ferguson got blacker, it also got poorer. Unemployment rose from five percent in 2000 to more than 13 percent in 2012. In the same period, those with jobs have seen pay cheques shrink by one-third.

Ferguson’s tensions were ignited by a killing, but the conditions are seen elsewhere across the US, Kneebone added. The number of suburban neighbourhoods in which more than a fifth of residents live in poverty more than doubled from 2000-12.

“There have been rapid changes in the demography of poverty this past decade,” she told Al Jazeera. “There are more people in poverty in the suburbs now than in cities, which are ill-equipped for growing poor populations and lack a leadership structure that reflects the community’s make-up.”

Military solution?

For Michael McPhearson, director of the anti-war group Veterans For Peace, the take-home message from Ferguson is how protest crowd-control increasingly resembles the military hardware he witnessed in use by US forces overseas.

He pointed to camouflage kits and military-grade body armour, short-barrelled assault rifles and armoured trucks – perhaps even a mine-resistant, ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicle, which protects troops from roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I fought in Iraq and didn’t have that much gear, even though I was facing real soldiers carrying loaded AK-47s,” he told Al Jazeera. “All this equipment creates a mentality and raises the stakes on a situation to make it much more likely that people will get killed.”

Back at the bashed-up clothing store, Morris checks that his new window panels can withstand another night’s rioting. Angry crowds down the street are growing. There are rumours of Molotov cocktails, guns and trouble-makers in from New York and California.

“I don’t care how many police you bring in, the only way you can stop someone who’s angry and hurt is to shoot them,” he said.

“We’ve been pulled over so many times. We’ve been arrested so many times. There are so many people who have no fear. Some of these young people don’t care about life anymore.”

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera.