Colonizing Histories and Rebranding Pocahontas

On a recent visit to the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), on the Washington, DC, National Mall, I encountered a wall with the declaration: “Pocahontas didn’t save John Smith. She saved America.” After staring at these sentences for several moments, troubled and confused, I wandered into the rest of the exhibit, where I was promised I would learn the “true” story of Pocahontas. Yet browsing the subsequent panels that detail what historians know about Pocahontas’s life did little to counter my anger and bewilderment at that opening frame.

What “America” was this panel talking about? “America,” by which the museum seemed to mean the United States, did not exist during Pocahontas’s life, circa 1596-1617. The Jamestown colony organized by the Virginia Company was established in 1607, when Pocahontas was approximately 11 years old. As the exhibit notes, the real-life Pocahontas was the daughter of the chief of the Powhatan people, and she accompanied her father on diplomatic missions to Jamestown. She likely never had a romance with John Smith, but in 1613, at age 18, she was kidnapped and held hostage by English settlers for over a year. During her captivity, she met and agreed to marry the English colonist John Rolfe. In 1616, she traveled to England with Rolfe and their son, and died there in 1617.

John Smith himself was responsible for creating and spreading the story about his romance with Pocahontas through accounts he published, as the exhibit explains. But why critique the John Smith story immortalized by Disney only to replace it with the same portrait of Pocahontas as remarkable chiefly as a savior of white settlers? In what way did she “save America”? The exhibit explains that her marriage to Rolfe helped institute a break in warfare between the English and the Powhatan Confederacy. By telling her story this way, the NMAI paints Pocahontas as a “founder” of the United States, when her actual story as a long-time hostage of the English is evidently more complicated. So, I wanted to know: Why was a museum supposedly dedicated to telling stories that empower and reflect the complexities of Native American people rehashing tired tropes about Pocahontas and her value to the United States?

The Pocahontas exhibit is part of a larger show at the NMAI titled simply “Americans,” which will be ongoing through 2022. “Americans” purports to examine how Native Americans are “embedded in unexpected ways in the history, pop culture, and identity of the United States.” Alongside the room on Pocahontas, the exhibit also has sections on Thanksgiving, the Trail of Tears and the Battle of Little Bighorn. These rooms extend from a large gallery room that surrounds visitors with hundreds of images and objects featuring stereotypical representations of Native Americans in US popular culture — from the Land-o-Lakes “Indian maiden” to “Indian” sports mascots (many of these images are also viewable online). Brief captions accompany these pieces, often providing context for the individual representation, but rarely providing meaningful critique. The point of this room, and the “Americans” exhibit overall, seems to be to get non-Indigenous peoples to see how pervasive “Indian” imagery is in the United States, and perhaps from that recognition, to further understand the importance of Native Americans to US history and culture.

I imagine this lesson may be powerful to certain non-Indigenous people who have never been asked to think critically (or at all) about Native Americans. But to me, the proliferation of stereotypical images without any serious analysis of settler colonialism, cultural appropriation and ongoing violence against Native American people, was overwhelming and outrageous. As an Indigenous Studies scholar, and as a Native Hawaiian woman whose community is often abused in similar ways, being in a room full of images of racist mascots and celebrities in fake headdresses was profoundly disempowering. I was angry not because I had never seen such racist caricatures, but because, as the exhibit points out, these images are everywhere in the United States. They are surprising to no one. Rather, I was shocked by the museum’s lack of care and complexity with this material.

Who is this exhibition meant for? It cannot be primarily for Native Americans and other Indigenous peoples themselves. I saw other visitors smiling at some objects, as if remembering that cartoon or album cover from their childhood. Indigenous peoples are not humorless. I smirked at the familiar photo of Cher from her 1973 “Half-Breed” video too. But I also saw that without the interpretative critique, some visitors were walking away from that room with nostalgia for the well-worn stereotypical images of their youth. When people walk away from colonial propaganda feeling fondness for the representations rather than disturbed, or at the very least uncomfortable, something is wrong.

To be clear, my argument is not about censorship. These images should be shown, contextualized and critiqued, ideally by amplifying Native American voices. I do precisely this in my own classes. Instead, the NMAI appears to have settled for simply pointing out general inaccuracies in the representations. This approach utterly fails in challenging the broader ideological work that these images do in teaching and maintaining racist, sexist and colonial views of Indigenous peoples. These days, we have a new appreciation for simple facts, and of course, elevating the truth matters. But merely commenting on the incorrectness of, for example, the hair style and fashion of the 1994 Native American Barbie is meaningless if that correction is not tied to a larger discussion of how Native American women have long been subject to specific kinds of cultural appropriation, racism and sexual violence.

In the chapter on Pacific Histories: Ocean, Land, People (2014) titled, “The Pacific in Indigenous Time,” Indigenous Studies scholar Damon Salesa has written that “an ethical and full engagement with an indigenous past is through an indigenous present.” In this vein, recognizing the broader context to stereotypical “Indian” imagery is not only about making this exhibit more inclusive of Native American people, but about recognizing that settler colonial violence is integral to US history and culture itself. Settler colonialism, as a dominant structure that seeks to remove Native American people from their lands and replace them with white settlers, is a political and economic system, but it is also significantly ideological. It works because non-Indigenous people learn to accept dehumanizing ideals about Indigenous peoples. That is why representations matter: they create ideologies that have material consequences.

Indeed, the material consequences of settler colonial ideologies about Native American women in particular are devastating, if rarely recognized in US mainstream media. As scholar-activists like Sarah Deer have shown, Native American women are subject to much higher rates of sexual assault because of laws that effectively allow non-Natives to commit crimes with impunity on Native American reservations. In this context, it is flatly unacceptable to have an exhibit that purportedly seeks to critically analyze stories about Pocahontas but completely fails to recognize how settler narratives that paint colonialism as benign, romantic and consensual continue to promote violence against Native American girls and women. To say that a 12-year-old Pocahontas and John Smith never actually fell in love is insufficient in undoing the ideological work that their invented love story has done for centuries. The Pocahontas story allows white settler men a violent sense of entitlement to Native women, but this violence reads as a treasured national romance. There is similarly no excuse for displaying images of a “Squaw Brand” of canned peas without noting and critiquing the history of the use of “squaw” as a hateful slur directed at Native women, or the gallery’s inclusion of a 1952 illustration of an apparently white pin-up girl dressed in skimpy “Indian” attire, without elaborating on and challenging the history of white women dressing up as “sexy Natives” just like Cher and Gwen Stefani.

To put Pocahontas and other Native American women’s stories into this larger colonial, contemporary context, the NMAI need not reinvent any wheels. Indigenous feminist scholars, including Renya Green and Chris Finley have told complex stories about Pocahontas and how representations of her impact Native American women. Many other Indigenous feminist scholars and activists have broadly analyzed, critiqued and challenged the links between gendered violence and settler colonialism. Anita Lucchesi, for example, has created an online database for missing and murdered Indigenous women. Instead of referencing any of this meaningful work or interviewing Native American women about the significance of Pocahontas, the Pocahontas exhibit closes with a video of seemingly random passersby responding to what comes to mind when they hear Pocahontas. The result is salt in the wound: a lot of off-key, nostalgic singing of Colors of the Wind and other songs from the 1995 Disney movie.

It is not that the “Americans” exhibit should only focus on the damage colonialism continues to wreak on Native American peoples. Rather, by failing to substantially engage with the contemporary Native voices who have robust interpretations of the topics of the exhibition, the show also erases the substantial efforts of Native Americans to resist settler colonialism. In this way, the exhibit does not appear to hail Indigenous peoples as its audience, despite the fact that Native American scholars curated this show.

My critique of this show is in fact spurred by this point: that Native American people directed this show, and that this show is at the NMAI, a museum that Indigenous peoples hope will treat our histories and contemporary lives with more care than other museums have. My words are not a dismissal of this show or the museum, but a deeply invested plea to all Indigenous scholars, museum curators, librarians, teachers and more. We owe it to our communities to do better. Though the NMAI may face particular pressures to tell Indigenous histories as if they are primarily valuable for their contributions to the US because of its placement on the National Mall, even there, we do not have to tell our stories as if the diverse Indigenous peoples of this land were always destined to be “Americans.” There is a tension between Indigenous histories and US history that is productive to leave and highlight, not attempt to ignore or resolve.

The new National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) down the street from the NMAI provides a strong example of how to do precisely this in its skillful telling of Black histories from slavery through Jim Crow, Black Power and Black Lives Matter.

The NMAAHC impressed me especially in its ability to see both Black and non-Black people as its audience. Its exhibits put racist images in context with both racial violence and ever-present resistance to that violence. The NMAI could similarly do more to include both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples as its audience, instead of staging exhibits like “Americans” that largely shallowly engage non-Indigenous peoples by correcting the facts of tired settler mythologies that the settlers have unsurprisingly gotten wrong. What if the NMAI and all exhibits everywhere about Indigenous peoples centered not just their “contributions” to the settler nation or the beauty in Indigenous cultural objects, but the beauty of ongoing Indigenous art and activism? Such work might offer Indigenous audiences an empowering reflection of themselves while also teaching non-Indigenous visitors something about how to be in better relation to the land they live on and to the peoples whose stories about that land far precede the United States.