Hunted down and captured by the natives, the brave English captain, bound and helpless, his head resting on two rocks, awaits his fate: his brains about to be crushed by a single blow from a tomahawk. Suddenly an 11-year-old girl—the daughter of Chief Powhatan himself—runs to the white man, places her head on his and begs for his life. Moved, the chief spares the captain, and a friendship of mutual understanding and trade ensues.
Or so goes the oft-told, long-cherished tale of Pocahontas and Captain John Smith. The reality, however—just like many a legend—was far different. According to scholar Joseph Kelly in “Marooned,” the Powhatan—yes, “Powhatan” was his title—meaning “Chief of Chiefs, not the man’s name, which was Wahunsonacock—was curious as to the newcomers’ intentions on his land, and captured Smith to question him. Wahunsonacock, supreme leader of an empire of 30 tribes covering over 6,000 square miles of what is now Virginia and North Carolina, was eager to trade with the settlers, knowing that their superior weapons would aid against his enemies, and their metal tools would expedite the preparation of meat and hides.
The Powhatan’s people, the Pamunkey, staged a scene wherein the captured Smith was about to be executed when Princess Pocahontas placed her head by his as a mark of the tribe’s protection. As Kelly describes it, it was all a “scripted, symbolic adoption ceremony.”
Smith hadn’t a clue (or said he hadn’t). When the natives laid his head on two rocks he thought they were going to “beate out his braines.” Then, he said, Pocahontas came to his rescue and “got his head in her armes, and laid her owne upon his to save him from death.”
Although Smith’s version was false, it was the one that has persisted over four centuries.
It is a paradigm that Native Americans are all too familiar with. There is what happened, and then there is the white man’s spin on it. The spin is what survives. As full-blooded Nez Perce Stacia Morfin says, “We know there’s three sides to every story: The first side, the second side and the truth. We like to share the truth.”
November, Native American Heritage Month, is the time to share that truth and to recognize the living, breathing, vibrant reality of Native Americans and their contributions, as well as the oft-white-washed history of their near extermination in the past and their fight for inclusion, human rights and religious freedom in the present.
Although they comprise 2.5 percent of the population, their presence has been felt, albeit too often erased, ignored, or twisted. Native Americans served in the U.S. military at a higher per capita rate than any other ethnic group in the past century. And in the military actions following September 11, 2001, Native men and women veterans served at a higher rate than veterans of all other ethnic groups, according to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.
Much of what makes America America is thanks to Native Americans—the indigenous peoples who lived, built civilizations, and brought forth culture, the fine arts and trade tens of thousands of years ago when the ancestors of the European usurpers were still living in caves.
What did you have for dinner last night? Potatoes? Corn? According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 60 percent of the world’s food supply comes from Native American cultivation and agriculture.
Planning a trip to Ohio? Or Arkansas, Minnesota, Oklahoma or California? Over half the states in the U.S. derive their names from indigenous languages, as do countless cities, rivers, lakes, mountains, thoroughfares and other locations too numerous to catalog here.
Studying the Constitution? Any course in basic civics must include that much of our own democracy and legal roots stem from the Iroquois Confederacy of 1142, the oldest living participatory democracy on Earth.
Going fishing? Hunting? Camping? Is your child a proud Girl or Boy Scout? Much of our wilderness lore was first taught to us by Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians.
Looking for a good natural remedy or herbal cure? It’s likely that what you find was first discovered and then passed down to us by these students of plants and their healing properties.
Our indigenous forebears and countrymen define America as much as its rivers, mountains and plains.
And as we observe Native American Heritage Month, it would be well to remember that indigenous blood courses through the veins of those who’ve achieved much and gone far. And not just the likes of Olympic star Jim Thorpe (Sac and Fox Nation) or Maria Tallchief (Osage Nation) America’s first major prima ballerina; and not just rock icon Jimi Hendrix (Cherokee ancestry).
If one also looks at the descendants of Princess Pocahontas—a well-documented family tree that begins with Chief of Chiefs Wahunsonacock—one finds a trail over the ages that leads from footpath, teepee and hut all the way to the White House. Mary Anne Randolph Custis, aka Mrs. Robert E. Lee, was a direct descendant, as was U.S. Senator Harry Byrd, and his brother, South Pole explorer Richard E. Byrd. Mary Anne Harrison, wife of former New York City mayor John Lindsay, could claim the Powhatan blood royal as could First Lady Edith Wilson, who for a time it is said ran the country herself as a “stewardship” while her husband Woodrow lay bedridden by a stroke.
The Native American’s very existence—attacked, ignored, libeled in legend and the movie screen—challenges us to confront our history—our full history. Native American Heritage Month affords us the opportunity, as it does each year, to learn and respect how much our individual and collective lives are bound up with those of the ones who preceded us and who walk among us now. For the reality is that in a deeper truer sense, far more than the 97.5 percent of the rest of us, Native Americans are America.
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