More than a name

1 year ago Marlyn Silva Comments Off on More than a name

No matter how many years have passed, no matter how progressive society may get, we always seem to move a couple steps back. One of the many racially charged incidents that have happened in the past year involved President Donald Trump and Native Americans. Recently, there was a ceremony at the White House honoring three Navajo World War II veterans. It was at this ceremony that President Trump referred to Senator Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas.” This turned out to be a dig at the Senator as she has previously identified herself to have Native American roots. While the remark was supposed to be a joke, it didn’t help that it was told in front of a painting of President Andrew Jackson, who famously passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The act itself resulted in the forcible move of Native Americans to the west coast of the United States. Many died as they moved west, resulting in the journey’s infamous name: The Trail of Tears. Given all the history behind Trump’s remark, it’s not surprising that it quickly went south, attracting attention from people across the nation. It brings up the question, was it a poor joke with unfortunate circumstances, or bad taste in humor?

Now, what’s important to take note of is the fact that there are many things wrong with this incident. To start, President Trump using “Pocahontas” in what can only be seen as a snide remark is insulting in many ways. Not only was it to tease Senator Warren, and we’ll get back to her, it’s using Pocahontas’ name as an insult. Just to refresh some memories, Pocahontas was not just your favorite Disney princess, in fact her name wasn’t Pocahontas.

Pocahontas was born as Matoaka, while “Pocahontas” was just a nickname. Matoaka/Pocahontas was then married off at a young age, but eventually married an English man named John Rolfe, not John Smith, despite what Disney may have told us. The fact of the matter is, is that regardless of the way people know her, the President used her name not to be funny, but to be insulting. This is a woman that if people researched further, would know that she had gone through many hardships in her life. She isn’t someone that we, as a society, should cash into her name and heritage for a simple movie or joke. Maybe it’s time to recognize who she truly was.

Not only was the joke insensitive, it wasn’t smart to have delivered it in front of three Native Americans. For years, Native Americans have gotten the short end of the stick where their culture is constantly being disrespected. It doesn’t help that this was done all in front of a portrait depicting someone who had a big hand in causing many Native American deaths. As reported by various media outlets, the Native American community found this insulting and derogatory. On the other hand, Senator Warren isn’t off the hook either. The whole reason such a remark was made in the first place is because she had originally claimed to have Native American genes. While no proof has been presented, making such a statement is obviously going to be controversial. The general idea being if a person claims to be a part of the minority population without experiencing being a minority, then they shouldn’t have the right to claim to be one at all when it comes to actual experience.

There have been way too many incidents in which people state that they are for example, African American, or maybe even of Latino descent when they are not. Most of the time such a statement attracts negative attention. Let’s look at Rachel Dolezal. She was the woman who made headlines a few years ago when it was revealed that while she was a civil rights activist and identified as African American, she was in fact white and of European descent. What made her lose credibility, even more than she could have, was the fact that she had created this lie and even lied about hate crimes she had been a victim of due to the color of her skin. As anyone could imagine, people were outraged. She eventually lost her job and her name became associated with negative reactions. At the end of the day, from what the people know, Senator Warren could be lying or stretching out the truth. The deeper issue and question from this situation being that if a person hadn’t experienced the hardships, trials and tribulations of a minority race, should they be able to claim it as their own even if they may have some of the genes?

While this is a deep-rooted issue, the disrespectful way President Trump brought it to everyone’s attention was definitely unnecessary. The common argument being that “it was just a joke” doesn’t cut it at all. If the Native Americans have said that they feel insulted, then maybe there is something wrong with what was said. This is just another lesson to be learned, but when will it stop? When will society reach a point in which people become aware that race is not a joke?

Marlyn Silva
mhsilva@vwu.edu