Pocahontas: Disney v. Reality

WIth oil portrait of Andrew “Indian Killer” Jackson in background, President Trump uses racial slur in front of Navajo Code Talkers.

Guest Commentary

Published December 3, 2017


White House ceremony for honorable and aging Navajo (Dine’) code talkers on Monday, November 27, 2017.

Painting on the wall behind the code talkers: Indian slayer, author and implementer of the Indian Removal Act: Andrew Jackson

The 45th occupant’s words during his “honoring ceremony” for the brave code talkers:

“You’re very very special people. You were here long before any of us were here,” President Trump said to the veterans in the white house ceremony. “Although we have a representative in Congress who they say was here a long time ago. They call her Pocahontas. But you know what. I like you. Because you are special.”

These words are so offensive on so many levels, it is difficult to know where to start. As an enrolled member of the Cowlitz Nation, as a Native woman, as a woman, as a retired clinical psychologist who worked with trauma survivors, in and out of Indian Country, as a person who has a deep understanding of my own history, my own tribal history, and the history of genocide and death that has continued for the past 525 years, I am disgusted and disheartened by not only these ugly words but the shocking support and defense that so many nonNatives (primarily on the right end of the political spectrum) have for them.

On many of the discussion forums on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, the excuses about these horrible words have included the following:

My personal “favorite”: “Pocahontas is the only Indian most of us white people know. It was a great Disney movie.”

Other comments:

  • “Elizabeth Warren lied about her Indian heritage, so she deserves what Trump said.”
  • “It isn’t a racial slur to call Warren “Pocahontas. You Indians are so thin skinned.”
  • “Oh, look at people wanting everyone to be politically correct. Who cares if Trump calls Warren by that name?”
  • “I am part Native and this doesn’t bother me.”

I always find this last statement so interesting. If pressed on “what part Native” they are, people who use this term always claim to be Cherokee but are never enrolled and never know who their people are or what their history is. Astonishingly, their claiming to be Cherokee echoes the very thing they accuse Warren of, and they have no awareness of how ironic their comments are.

In fact, the true story of Pocahontas is tragic, horrifying, and one that echoes the allegations of sexual assault against Trump, Roy Moore, and, now, so many men in power. There are several facts that need to be discussed before the rest of Trump’s insulting comments are examined. First, Pocahontas was a 12-year-old girl who was abducted, raped, and held for ransom by the English during the Anglo-Indian war of 1613. She was born in 1598 and died in 1617. She was the daughter of a principal chief, Powhatan of the Paumunkey tribe. She was forced into Christianity during her time in captivity and died in London, where she was forced to go with her husband, a planter named John Rolfe. The myth of Pocahontas is that she “saved” the life of John Smith, a colonizer, when she “laid her head on that of Captain John Smith” when her father was going to kill Smith.

Pocahontas, contrary to the Disney movie, was not an adult woman. She was not a stereotypical sexualized Native woman made so popular by Halloween costumes and movies. She was not Cherokee. In fact, as with one in every three Native women, she was sexually assaulted and brutalized. This is the child whose name Trump has used as a racial slur to discredit Elizabeth Warren. Warren is an adult woman who has claimed to be of Cherokee descent.

Robin A. LaDue, Ph.D.

Certainly, Warren through her words and her lack of support of Indian Country, has fostered resentment and concerns. There have been questions as to if she used her claimed Cherokee blood was used to an advantage. However, for this discussion Warren’s Cherokee blood is not the point of this discussion. It is the use of the name of a victim of sexual assault, who was 12 years old, to dishonor a woman that is so appalling.

What is even more appalling being so many people support Trump’s ugliness. Trump’s hatred and disrespect for Native people goes back decades. In a very telling Washington Post article from 2016 written by Shawn Boburg, the racism by Trump against Native people is laid out in all its ugliness. Some of the comments Trump made against Indian gaming and Native people in general included:

  • him accusing Native people and their gaming programs of being involved with the Mafia and organized crime, despite there being no evidence of this;
  • him stating that Native people “don’t look like Indians” to him or to other Indians;
  • and “dark skinned” Indians were “faking” their ancestry.

How very little Trump has changed in nearly thirty years. It is discouraging that Trump’s ugly racism has fast become the norm and acceptable within this country. But, the disrespect of Trump towards Native people, as amply demonstrated in his “honoring” of the Dine’ code talkers was not just targeted at Warren. The painting that hung behind Trump, as noted above, was that of Andrew Jackson. Trump has declared Jackson as one of his heroes and a president whose actions he emulates. In fact, Andrew Jackson signed the legislation that led to the terrible Trail of Tears and the deaths of thousands of Native people as they were forced off their ancestral lands and forced on a death march to Indian Territory, now known as Oklahoma.

Third, Trump is a five-time draft dodger during the Vietnam War who used the excuse of bone spurs to stay out of the military. He spoke down to men who served a country and came from New Mexico and Arizona, states that did not allow these code talkers the right to vote. Trump patronized this heroes in his words, insulted Warren with a racial slur that mocked a young Native girl who had been sexually assaulted and kidnapped, and did it all in front of the portrait of an avowed Indian hunter and practitioner of genocide.

In closing, it is time to revisit an example of how “insignificant’ Native women are in the eyes of this country, right leaning politicians, e.g. Eric Cantor and other Republicans, Trump, and other so called Christians. The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was written and signed into law in 1994. It provided funds for investigations through the Department of Justice’s newly formed Office on Violence Against Women. The Act was renewed in 2000 and 2005. However, in 2012, Republicans in Congress, led by Eric Cantor, held up the renewal of the Act. The Republicans who fought against the bill cited the following objections to its renewal:

Protections were extended to same-sex couples;

Protections were extended to allowing battered illegal immigrants and;

Ironically, not wanting nonNative abusers and perpetrators to be tried in tribal courts under the supposition that tribal courts could not be fair to nonNative defendants. The irony, of course, is the lack of adequate and equal protection under the law and in courts afforded to Native defendants and litigants in predominantly white courts.

The attack on VAWA by Republicans also included cutting funds to the program. It is hard to imagine that the “party of family values” would have objections to women being protected. Yet, today, in this political climate, the governor of Alabama and the 45th occupant of the White House stated explicitly that they “would rather have a pedophile than a Democrat.”

In truth, as stated, one in three Native women will be assaulted, physically and sexually, in their lives, primarily by nonNative partners. There are thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Native people are the group most likely to be murdered by the police. Pocahontas was a child sexual abuse victim. To treat her as anything less, to use her name as a racial slur, is disgusting.

Before ending this article, it should be recognized and acknowledged that there are Native predators in Indian Country. Having worked as a clinical psychologist in Indian Country and dealt with the amount of verbal, physical, and sexual abuse that is present, it would be inappropriate not to address these problems. In a brilliant article written by Adrienne K. and published in the October 10, 2017 edition of Native Appropriations, the very real and horrifying issue of sexual abuse in Indian Country is a prevalent and, in the clear majority of situations, as hidden and denied as in other settings.

I will let Adrienne K.’s words speak for themselves and I will hope that anyone reading this article will take them to heart and to soul:

“We know the statistics, that one in three of our women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. We also are often quick to fall back on the statistic that 70 percent of these assaults are committed by non-Native men. But that still means 30 percent come from within our communities. And these are only the reported numbers. Imagine how many more go unreported.

We need to talk about it. I just don’t know how.

Of course, not all Native men. Of course I know many thoughtful, kind, truly respectful Indigenous men. But many of those men are also complicit in this system. They know these other men, they share spaces and beers and panels and even ceremonies with them, and they also know the stories of their friends, their sisters, their partners–yet they say nothing. And if you read this post and are worried one of these stories I hold is about you, then it’s time to start examining yourself and your behavior. Our Native men need to step up and address and fix this. It’s not on us, and it’s not just me. Ask any woman in your life.”

In conclusion, at least for now, to ignore the dishonor of Dine’ code talkers, to dishonor such brave men and a Native girl who was abducted and brutalized, in front of a portrait of a man who killed thousands of Native people is what Trump did. He has no reservations to do such things. He has no sense of the terror that Native women and children go through. That the “leader” of this country would behave in such a manner is beyond incomprehensible.

Anyone, Native or non-Native, who participates in the denigration of Native women, who uses Pocahontas as a racial slur, who excuses Trump’s horrible dishonoring of the Dine’ code talkers, is perpetuating the stereotypes and racism that has long marked the life of Native people in this country. On a final note, Pocahontas was a sexually abused teenager. To forget that salient fact is to perpetuate the worst of what humans can do to each other as it allows violence, denigration and the invisibility of Native people, particularly women, to continue.

People who speak up for Native women, people who speak up against the use of the name of Pocahontas as a racial slur, and people who understand the struggle that Native women go through are heroes. They are not “snowflakes,” they are not cowards, they are not racists, and they are not “lefties.” The next time Trump, as he inevitably will, uses the name of a sexual abuse victim as a racial slur, speak up and remind people who Pocahontas really was. To do any less is to be a part of the ugly history of racism against Native women.

Robin A. Ladue, PhD, is a retired clinical psychologist and is an enrolled member of the Cowlitz Nation. She is the award-winning author of the Journey Through the Healing Circle series and the novel Totems of September. She has taught in indigenous communities around the world and lectured widely on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and historical trauma.

Alan J. Willoughby, JD, MPA, is an attorney who has worked with high risk youth and through the foster care system for the past 35 years. He is a dedicated advocate of children’s health and safety.


There are many men in my life, past and present, who have been tireless advocates for women and children, in all communities, in all walks of life, and of all races. One of these men has been generous in his time and efforts in supporting my writing. While I respect this brilliant young man’s choice to remain anonymous, I would be very remiss not to thank him for his insights, dedication to Native people, and to justice and equality.

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