Hi friends! So – it’s Smithsonian Native American Heritage Month and I’ve been extremely remiss in my posting I know, but we’re working on it. What I love about the Heritage Months is different voices and perspectives. Both what we might expect to be usual as well as the ~Unusual ones. I roped Dabney into writing a post for me based on a conversation we had about names – which led to this little tidbit about her. I hope you all give her a warm welcome.
When I was in kindergarten my grandmother, Pocahontas, came to my school and gave a presentation about our famous ancestor. I still have the newspaper article about my grandmother’s visit—it is, I suspect, the first time I was ever quoted by a reporter. When asked how I felt about “being descended” from the Indian princess, I shared I didn’t like it when my friends teased me about it and I was very glad I wasn’t named for her.
Since the first famous Pocahontas, there was a Pocahontas in every generation until my mother’s peer group. None of the four girls in that batch received the moniker. My mother—Elizabeth—says when she was a little girl, her mother asked her if she’d name a daughter Pocahontas. My mother said no, but she’d be willing to so name one of her dolls.
When Lime asked me if I’d write a piece about being related to Pocahontas, my reaction was “No way.” My biological connection to Pocahontas is so slim as to be non-existent and there’s never been a day in my life I’ve identified as anything other than WASP. Lime persisted and, because she’s Lime and lovely, I agreed to write about the experience of having Pocahontas as my “ten greats back grandmother.”
I was raised to be proud of my Virginia roots. My grandmother Pocahontas was an author and a Southern historian who tracked genealogy and signed her grand-children and great-grand children up for birthright based societies. I grew up hearing the stories of not just Pocahontas but her husband John Rolfe and his lands and tobacco farms, of King Carter, the largest landholder in Colonial Virginia, of Robert E. Lee, and of Benjamin Henry Harrison.
My family moved all over the country when I was growing up and, no matter where I moved, I could impress people with my famous ancestors. By the time I was in high school, though, those sort of family stories made me itchy and bored—it was uncool to care about dead people or to take pride in my family’s past.
My first semester at Duke, I was in a program called “Twentieth Century America.” All the classes were anchored by the study of the US in the 20th and late 19th centuries. On the first day of the sociology class, Dr. Preiss said to us, “I’m here to teach you that you and your families are the problem.” In the history class, we read printouts from a book called Red, White, and Black: A History of Oppression in America.
By my sophomore year, I’d written the only paper I’d ever get an A+ on in college entitled Racism: A Family Heirloom. I looked at the family lore I’d learned with new eyes. I viewed my extended family, especially my grandparent’s generation, with something bordering on shame. If I ever told anyone I was the tenth great grand-daughter of Pocahontas, it was to make it clear I knew the history I came from held slave-holders, racists, and Republicans and I wanted to distance myself from that shit. I became my family’s radical—at least until my sister joined the Peace Corps—and argued with my elders about their immoral beliefs.
Despite this, I settled in North Carolina, just an hour and a half away from my maternal grandparents. I visited them every month, and filled my house with their hand-me-down furniture, kitchen goods, and books. When I got married, I wore my grandmother’s flapper wedding dress and said my vows in a little church in their town.
As I aged, they became old. My grandmother ran her car into the post office wall when she was in her 70’s and she never walked with ease again. My grandfather slid sadly into dementia. By the time I was 30 and expecting my first child, I’d lost any anger I’d had toward them for their pasts. When my husband and I talked about names for our kids, I insisted we pick names from our families. Each time we named a child, I’d tell my grandmother our choice and she’d smile and tell me all the stories she held in her head about the ancestors and relatives who’d had those same names.
When I got pregnant with my last two children, one of whom is our only girl, I visited my grandmother in the retirement home she’d moved to when my grand-father died. She asked me if I would name my daughter Pocahontas. I said, no, we were naming her for my husband’s mother. My grandmother didn’t look surprised. Ultimately, she had four grand-daughters and nine great grand-daughters and not one of them has her name.
My children and their cousins—my maternal grandparents had 25 great-grandchildren—all know they are related to Pocahontas. My siblings and I tell stories about Pocahontas, our brilliant, opinionated, genealogy obsessed grand-mother. When she was 21 she moved to the Left Bank in Paris so that she could study violin. She lived for a time with her friend Angela Gregory who was there to study stone-cutting. She spent four hours every morning writing. Her books are in university libraries and listed on Google. When Disney released Pocahontas, she was interviewed over and over. She gave an interview to a Japanese television station that so incensed her sisters—they’d never forgiven the Japanese for Pearl Harbor—the three were estranged for almost a year. She died when she was 95 and, at her funeral, the minister asked for us to share our “Pokey” stories. The service lasted for hours.
Recently, I and my niece were talking about privilege and our family. I said I often wanted to shed or at the very least apologize for my privilege. Lucy said no, you couldn’t do that. You could only accept it.
For me, a better verb might be own. I own my Pocahontas stories. And if I ever have a grand-daughter or great-grand-daughter named Pocahontas, I’ll tell her about her namesake, Pocahontas, my grandmother.
I tried to find Red, White, and Black: A History of Oppression in America, but my google-fu is well, google hates me. However if you google that phrase there is a lot out there, so might I suggest you read a few articles? Especially with Thanksgiving around the corner, I think it’s important. For myself I didn’t really think about a number of the issues that holiday presents until a few years ago. Not to say we shouldn’t celebrate a day of thankfulness – but maybe with less reverence towards the history? I’m only dipping my toes into the water, but hopefully we’re providing some food for thought.