- - Wednesday, February 14, 2018


When is a slur a slur? We’ve become the apologetic society, mindlessly trading in regrets, amends and excuses, demanding pardons for often meaningless or unintended affronts and transgressions. An apology asked for is no apology at all, but this never occurs to the bruised snowflakes among us.

Elizabeth Warren, the delicate Democratic senator from Massachusetts, finally went before an Indian audience Wednesday to talk about her imaginative claims to a “Native American” birthright. She has been accused of cultural misappropriation by inventing an Indian blood-connection to qualify as a diversity princess. If the National Congress of American Indians expected an apology, they got only a pout. Donald Trump keeps calling her “Pocahontas,” which she regards as a “slur.”

The senator’s claim of Indian ancestry has been mocked and ridiculed by others, redskin and paleface alike, which she says is a slight of her “ethnicity.” But Mr. Trump, it seems to us, pays her the compliment of attaching her to an authentic heroine of American lore.

Pocahontas was no idle invention of a Hollywood scriptwriter. She was the daughter of Powhatan, an Algonquin and the paramount chief of several tribal nations in the Virginia Tidewater, and she befriended the early Virginia colonists at Jamestown. Native Americans meeting Native Americans, one might say (and then duck).

In one story, perhaps not true but a good story nonetheless, she saved the life of the captured colonist John Smith at Jamestown when she put her head atop Smith’s as her father raised a war club to kill him.

Pocahontas herself was captured by the Redcoats and held for ransom during early Indian wars, and during her lengthy captivity she converted to Christianity. When she was liberated she chose to remain with the English, and at age 17 married a tobacco planter named John Rolfe. Consorting with a tobacco planter is reason enough for a politically correct senator to deny kinship four centuries later.

When the Rolfes, husband and wife, traveled to London in 1616 Pocahontas became a genuine celebrity, presented to London society as “a positive example of the civilized savage,” and feted at dinners and balls. But when the Rolfes departed for home Pocahontas took sick, died and was buried at St. George’s Church at Gravesend.

It’s not clear what’s not for Sen. Warren to like about Pocahontas. Many places in the United States have been named for her, and she has been objectified in art, literature and movies. Many descendants became members of the First Families of Virginia. And if that’s not hoity-toity enough for the senator, other descendants include the wife of Woodrow Wilson and this should please the populist senator, Wayne Newton, the king of the Las Vegas casinos.

Nevertheless, the lady clearly doesn’t like being called Pocahontas, but she has not explained why and how it’s a racial slur. The president’s nickname for her — he’s addicted to giving friend and foe nicknames, as in “Little Rubio,” “Crooked Hillary,” “Low-energy Jeb” and others — might sting, given as a rebuke for “fake ancestry,” but nobody could read it as a slur unless it’s somebody who really, really doesn’t like Indians.

Instead, she embraced a convenient myth, as far as anybody can tell, of the kind that grows on every family tree. She told her Indian audience another touching tale that her parents had to elope because Cherokee blood ran in her mother’s veins, and her father’s family opposed their romance.

Christopher Child, a genealogical researcher at the New England Historic and Genealogical Society, traced Ms. Warren’s family back to her great-grandfather on her mother’s side and could find no evidence of Indian heritage. “In her immediate pedigree there is no one who is listing themselves as not white,” he tells the Boston Globe. Tracing Indian lineage is not easy. “Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama claim to have Native American heritage, but we were never able to find evidence of that, and in both cases we traced their ancestry fairly thoroughly.” The skeleton under Mr. Obama’s family tree may be that certain of his mother’s ancestors in Arkansas included Confederate soldiers.

Ms. Warren, like most of us, has both saint and sinner hidden in her DNA. The story her parents lived, she says, “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.” But no one, not even the president, has tried to do that.

Pocahontas is a lovely name, suggestive of music, folklore and even poetry, and she ought to adopt the Powhatan princess as her own, take pride in the source of the juice in the president’s needle, and run with it. She shouldn’t confuse a needle with a slur.

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