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How Pocahontas — the myth and the slur — props up white supremacy

... The story of Pocahontas perversely became a symbol of national pride among white Americans during the era of forced Indian removal. The celebration of her imagined past helped deflect attention from the brutality of ongoing genocidal policies. In 1837, Congress commissioned an artist named John Gadsby Chapman to paint a massive mural for the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. Chapman chose as his subject the “Baptism of Pocahontas,” a rich image in which Pocahontas kneels luminous in a gleaming white dress, hands on her heart, with head bowed in prayer, accepting the superiority of English Christianity.

At the same time Chapman worked on his Pocahontas masterpiece, however, the federal government was aggressively pursuing a policy of forced Indian removal, rounding up native people off ancestral lands throughout the Southeast and marching them to reservations in the Oklahoma territory. By the time his painting was installed in the Rotunda (where it remains today), the U.S. Army had removed more than 45,000 southeastern Indian people from their homes and forced 4,000 native people to march to their death. This marked the beginning of a pattern in which Americans would venerate the history of Pocahontas, while simultaneously mistreating indigenous people and African Americans in the present.

During the Civil War, the Confederacy adopted this practice, as well. The sectional crisis of the 1840s and 1850s prompted Northerners and Southerners alike to begin crafting stories of national origins. Northerners argued the Puritans at Plymouth were national forebears, while Southerners claimed the founding of Jamestown as the site of American genesis.

For white Southerners, that made Pocahontas the mother of the South. For the Confederacy, she was a symbol of Southern exceptionalism, a link to royal ancestry, a queen among the heathen. As John Esten Cooke wrote in his 1861 poem “A Dream of the Cavaliers,” she was “Our own dear Pocahontas! Virgin Queen of the West — With the heart of a Christian hero, in a timid maiden’s breast!” An Indian who embraced the virtues of whiteness, her symbolic presence in the Confederate cause helped to justify the subjugation of nonwhite people. During the war itself, one Virginia cavalry unit went so far as to name itself “The Guard of the Daughter of Powhatan” and emblazoned an image of Pocahontas on its battle flag as it fought to preserve slavery.

In the decades following the Civil War, white Americans continued to fetishize Pocahontas as an Indian princess and a symbol of nativist pride. As immigrants from southern and Eastern Europe flooded to American shores, white Americans searched for ways to distinguish themselves as racially and ethnically superior to the newcomers. Pocahontas provided an ancestral touchstone from which white Americans could defend their racial and national superiority.

In 1887, former Virginia governor Wyndham Robertson published “Pocahontas and her Descendants” to assist those searching for ancestral connection to this most American of founding mothers. He noted that the descendants of Pocahontas ranked among the finest Americans, and, therefore, he argued, she was clearly of superior stock. “History, poetry, and art,” Robertson wrote, “have vied with one another in investing her name from that day to the present with a halo of surpassing brightness.”

By the early 20th century, Pocahontas was fully embraced by the growing American eugenics movement. ...

Read entire article at The Washington Post