Pocahontas: Public Discourse & Class Discussion

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      President Trump’s derogatory references to Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) as “Pocahontas” are a provocative topic for class discussion. Since it is March -- Women’s History Month -- it’s a great time to think about how we can incorporate more women’s history into our survey courses. The Pocahontas/Warren/Trump controversy offers a space for discussion of gender in an historical context, and a starting point for students to consider what they know and don’t know about native women.

When I asked my United States History I students to explain the most recent Pocahontas reference they knew it had something to do with Warren’s controversial claim to Native American heritage, which has been widely criticized. Their knowledge of Pocahontas, however, was limited to the Walt Disney-version. The reality is that for many students in a survey-level US history course Pocahontas is the only Native American women about whom they think they know anything. Their knowledge, in turn, is largely based on Englishman John Smith’s version of events. When the president used her name to attack a political foe he offered another example of a white male claiming ownership of Pocahontas’s story.

We can begin to demystify the story of Pocahontas -- and other Native American women -- by encouraging students to learn some basic facts. The National Women’s History Museum offers a brief introduction to Pocahontas that sets straight some of the commonly-held myths about her brief life and suggests resources for learning more. Asking students to compare recent documentary films such as Pocahontas: Beyond the Myth (Smithsonian Channel) to the popular culture interpretations can be an informative way to evaluate sources while considering how our public understanding of native women in our nation’s history, including Pocahontas, has been shaped by cultural misinterpretations. Once the students have a better sense of who historians believe she was, ask them to weigh the strengths and weaknesses of a modern-day politician invoking her name in public discourse.

Suggest to students that they continue to look for women’s history in the news. While it is difficult to incorporate every topic of interest into our US history survey each semester, the daily newspaper can provide prompts for informal discussion that can be quite fruitful. Discussing the Pocahontas reference in class helped to provoke the natural curiosity of some of these students who told me later that they had spent considerable time after class trying to better understand her historical significance. Inevitably their informal research led them to the stories of other native women with whom they were previously unfamiliar. Most importantly, the students were forced to grapple with how twenty-first-century historians can tell accurate stories of seventeenth-century native women’s lives and how politicians can shape those stories to fit their needs. In this era of “fake news,” encouraging student engagement with women’s history may be more meaningful than ever before.

About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.