Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has grown tired of President Donald Trump ridiculing her Native American lineage.
So at a surprise speech Wednesday at the National Congress of American Indians 2018 Executive Council Winter Session in Washington, D.C., Warren pushed back—with history.
“I’ve noticed that every time my name comes up, President Trump likes to talk about Pocahontas. So I figured, let’s talk about Pocahontas,” Warren told a crowd of over 500 tribal members from across the United States.
The progressive firebrand then quickly relayed the real-life story of Pocahontas, a native woman who played an outsized role in mediating the relationship between English colonizers and American Indian tribes in the early 1600s. Warren also criticized popular depictions of Pocahontas’s relationship with English settler John Smith as misleading and damaging to native histories.
“In the fairy tale, Pocahontas and John Smith meet and fall in love… In reality, the fable is used to bleach away the stain of genocide,” Warren proclaimed.
Pocahontas’s second marriage to tobacco planter John Rolfe brought a period of peace between eastern tribes and Jamestown. But, as Warren puts it, “Pocahontas was not around to enjoy it.” Rolfe took Pocahontas to London to showcase his new wife as a “civilized savage.” Pocahontas eventually died in London at the age of 21.
Warren said the story of Pocahontas—and the distortion of it—is representative of Native Americans’ struggle for truth and freedom at large.
“Indigenous people have been telling the story of Pocahontas—the real Pocahontas—for four centuries. A story of heroism. And bravery. And pain,” Warren said. “And, for almost as long, her story has been taken away by powerful people who twisted it to serve their own purposes.”
The senator, who claims partial Native American heritage, explained her family’s background in the speech, saying that her mother’s family was part Native American and that she eloped with Warren’s father because his family did not approve of their relationship.
“I get why some people think there’s hay to be made here,” Warren said. “You won’t find my family members on any rolls, and I’m not enrolled in a tribe.”
A handful of influential conservatives have charged Warren with being a fake, arguing that she’s used her Native American lineage as leverage to obtain prestigious roles at Harvard University and elsewhere. Some, like Trump, have openly mocked her heritage claims, disparagingly calling her Pocahontas and other off-color remarks.
Warren nevertheless shifted the conversation from her personal grievances to larger, systemic injustices against Native Americans—most of which predate Trump’s tenure as president by a few centuries.
“Our country’s disrespect of native people didn’t start with President Trump. It started long before President Washington ever took office,” she said.
Warren then promised to uplift stories of Native Americans next time the president or anyone else ridicules her for being part Native American.
“For far too long, your story has been pushed aside, to be trotted out only in cartoons and commercials,” she said. “So I’m here today to make a promise: Every time someone brings up my family’s story, I’m going to use it to lift up the story of your families and your communities.”
Warren also staunchly criticized the U.S. federal government’s historical mistreatment of native communities and challenged the nation to address myriad issues facing those same communities today.
“Washington owes you respect,” she said. “But this government owes you much more than that.”
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