The president’s inveterate use of the name “Pocahontas” in mockingly referring to U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren is a bit more than an example of Trumpian boorishness or of his habit of giving people derogatory nicknames. He’s picking up on a slur that certain Massachusetts opponents of Warren have been using since 2012, when the conservative Boston Herald found out Warren had self-identified as having a Native American background in a Harvard faculty directory back in the 1990s. Subsequent digging by various unfriendly and neutral sources discovered that Warren had no formal ties or right to identify with the Cherokee tribe she had been told was prominent in her mother’s Oklahoma background — but also that there was no evidence the highly regarded law professor had ever benefited from a Native connection.
Still, attacks on Warren for exaggerating her Native background struck a conservative chord by raising the familiar targets of diversity, affirmative action, and “political correctness,” then and now. Staff of her 2012 Senate opponent Scott Brown were caught on camera doing various pseudo-Native war chants at a campaign rally. By 2016, one of the most aggressive weaponizers of the “Pocahontas” slur, the hammerheaded Boston radio personality Howie Carr, introduced Donald Trump at a campaign rally with similar war whoops.
This nonsense has created a dilemma for Warren. Does she go out of her way to publicly confess her extremely minor misconduct in the faculty-directory listing, thus fanning the “scandal?” Does she ignore it entirely? Or does she find an effective way to fire back?
A Warren speech today to the National Congress of American Indians showed she has decisively settled on firing back.
For one thing, she’s insisting that Cherokee heritage was indeed part of her family’s life, even as she acknowledges that only tribes themselves can establish Native status.
[M]y mother’s family was part Native American. And my daddy’s parents were bitterly opposed to their relationship. So, in 1932, when Mother was 19 and Daddy had just turned 20, they eloped …
They’re gone, but the love they shared, the struggles they endured, the family they built, and the story they lived will always be a part of me. And no one — not even the president of the United States — will ever take that part of me away …
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.
At the same time, Warren ripped into Trump’s derisive references to her — which at one point he irrelevantly repeated during an Oval Office ceremony honoring Native military veterans — as an example of age-old racist distortions of Native history. After briefly recounting the actual tale of the actual Pocahontas, Warren offered this indirect jab:
Indigenous people have been telling the story of Pocahontas — the real Pocahontas — for four centuries. A story of heroism. And bravery. And pain.
And, for almost as long, her story has been taken away by powerful people who twisted it to serve their own purposes.
Warren later took a more explicit shot at Trump and at his favorite predecessor:
It is deeply offensive that this president keeps a portrait of Andrew Jackson hanging in the Oval Office, honoring a man who did his best to wipe out Native people.
And she linked advocacy for Native Americans to the more standard liberal causes she has embraced, including opposition to Big Oil profiteering from Native lands, the fight against GOP-supported safety-net cuts that disproportionately affect minorities, and even banking reform (“[I]t’s about 12 miles on average from the center of tribal reservations to the nearest bank branch.”).
It’s reasonable to assume that Warren will hearken back to this speech whenever Trump or anyone else calls her “Pocahontas” in the future, ensuring that the nastier aspects of the slur will not go unnoticed. And this response will also enhance her already strong reputation as a Democrat who is willing and able to stand her ground when the bully draws nigh.