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The president’s use of the word “Pocahontas” to refer to Elizabeth Warren yesterday wasn’t new, but it has garnered a lot of attention because of the setting in which he used it: at an event honoring WWII Navajo Marine veterans known as “Code Talkers,” while standing in front of a picture of Andrew Jackson.


Navajo code talkers in the Pacific, 1944

It’s worth considering the context for Trump’s Pocahontas remark, because while his reference to Warren was clearly intended to be a slur, his “positive” language about the Code Talkers he was meeting is also problematic, and taps into ideas that have a deep history in North America.

And I just want to thank you because you’re very, very special people. You were here long before any of us were here, although we have a representative in Congress who, they say, was here a long time ago. They call her “Pocahontas.”

Trump, I imagine, thought he was humorously contrasting “real Indians” – the Code Talkers – and “fake Indians” like Elizabeth Warren. As many have noted, Trump is remarkably focused on genes as markers of actual and potential greatness, sounding like early 20th century eugenicists at times. Even in the speech yesterday, upon finding out how old the Code Talkers were, he noted they must have “good genes.”

But he also has a history of using genetics, and Anglo-American ideas about the “authenticity” of contemporary tribal affiliations and practices, to fight his competition in the business world, as Shawn Boburg detailed in a piece for the Washington Post last summer.

Donald Trump claimed that Indian reservations had fallen under mob control. He secretly paid for more than $1 million in ads that portrayed members of a tribe in Upstate New York as cocaine traffickers and career criminals. And he suggested in testimony and in media appearances that dark-skinned Native Americans in Connecticut were faking their ancestry.

“I think I might have more Indian blood than a lot of the so-called Indians that are trying to open up the reservations,” Trump said during a 1993 radio interview with shock jock Don Imus.

Trump is certainly ignorant of the history of New England tribes, and the broader history of economic, political, cultural, and personal relationships between European colonists, enslaved people, and Native Americans in North America more broadly.

But he’s not alone in this ignorance, nor in his belief that white Americans have the power to know and proclaim what and who is authentically Indian. His remarks also contain, in a line that some might read as innocuous, one of the beliefs that helps justify and sustain this white “knowledge” of authentic Indianness.

…you’re very, very special people. You were here long before any of us were here…

Jonathan Katz’s comments on Twitter outline clearly what’s problematic about these remarks.

It’s insufficient for us to say “Trump’s racist so he thinks all Indians are the same.” We have to consider the very specific dynamics of this racism in North America. Certainly Trump’s emphasis on genetics suggests he thinks that’s enough to make them “all the same,” but by pointing out that they “were here long before any of us were here,” he’s using language that would be familiar to his hero Andrew Jackson.

Early 19th century Anglo-Americans increasingly framed all Indians as relics of history whose traditions and values could be carried on and refined by the next stage of civilization while they themselves vanished into the past. If they were soon to vanish, surely dispossessing them of their lands was nothing more than hurrying along a historical process by turning over that land to the next stage of civilization, one more capable of putting it to good use through agriculture.

This argument required, of course, a complete reimagining of European-Indian relations since colonization, one that erased clear Euro-American awareness of and participation in Indian agriculture and land sales. The cultural reimagining was given legal weight through treaties and through Supreme Court decisions like Johnson v. M’Intosh (1823).

In his decision, Chief Justice John Marshall, himself deeply invested in the project of Western land speculation, argued that European powers had, through their “discovery” of the land, claimed “ultimate dominion” over it, and any tribes allowed to remain there simply had the right of occupancy. The text of Marshall’s decision reveals this rewriting of history to consign Indians to history and make way for the next stage of civilization.

We will not enter into the controversy, whether agriculturists, merchants, and manufacturers, have a right, on abstract principles, to expel hunters from the territory they possess, or to contract their limits. Conquest gives a title which the courts of the conqueror cannot deny…

The tribe at issue, the Cherokee, were agriculturalists. Not only did they farm, they had adopted slavery. Moreover, the colonial system of land ownership that white Americans had inherited rested on sales that were valid because the original parties owned the land.

Yet this reimagining was so successful that most contemporary white Americans – especially those in New England – would have no problem stating, in one breath, that Indians were hunters and gatherers with no sense of property ownership, and in the next, talking about how Squanto and Samoset taught the Pilgrims how to farm.

The “knowledge” that Indians were from an earlier stage of history, without the capacity to understand property ownership or agriculture (both markers of the next stage of civilization), helped white Americans make the argument that all North American tribes were naturally disappearing.

From there, it was not too far to make the argument that Indians were not just “historical,” they were relics or living fossils, persisting past their appropriate time in human history yet incapable of changing and integrating with modernity. They weren’t simply historical, they were ahistorical. Lewis Cass, who was governor of the Michigan Territory at the time, introduced his 1829 report on the progress of “a Board in the City of New York, for the Emigration, Preservation, and Improvement of the Aborigines of America,” with this famous passage:

The Indians have gradually decreased since they became first known to the Europeans. The ratio of this diminution may have been greater or less, depending on the operation of causes we shall presently investigate; but there is no just reason to believe, that any of the tribes, within the whole extent of our boundary, has been increasing in numbers at any period since they have been known to us. . . .

To the operation of the physical causes, which we have described, must be added the moral causes connected with their mode of life, and their peculiar opinions. Distress could not teach them providence, nor want industry. As animal food decreased, their vegetable productions were not increased. Their habits were stationary and unbending; never changing with the change of circumstances. How far the prospect around them, which to us appears so dreary, may have depressed and discouraged them, it is difficult to ascertain, as it is also to estimate the effect upon them of that superiority, which we have assumed and they have acknowledged. There is a principle of repulsion in ceaseless activity, operating through all their institutions, which prevents them from appreciating or adopting any other modes of life, or any other habits of thought or action, but those which have descended to them from their ancestors.

When Trump told the Marines he was speaking with that they were “here long before any of us were here,” he was not only separating them from “us,” he was subtly drawing on 19th century narratives of Indians as historical and, by continuing to exist rather than vanishing as white Americans had foretold, ahistorical.

Critiquing Trump for his use of the term “Pocahontas” is easy; it’s a clear racial slur, and many of us can unequivocally state that we’d never do such a thing. Examining the ways that he draws on broader stereotypes about the (a)historical nature of Native Americans might be much harder for many of us.

These stereotypes are fundamental to our dominant narratives of Indian dispossession, and have been spun into romantic narratives about one-with-nature, anti-capitalist Indians who were too pure for the modern world but who you can honor by purchasing a dreamcatcher. These ideas, whether framed as positive or negative, are why the New England Indian Council, when it formed in 1923, took as its motto the phrase: “I still live.”


If you’re interested in how this idea of “authenticity” plays out in later 19th century America, I highly recommend Paige Raibmon’s Authentic Indians: Episodes of Encounter from the Late-Nineteenth-Century Northwest Coast.