Was ‘Pocahontas’ Her Real Name?

Tuesdays are traditionally wordplay days over here, and my original intent was to do a short post on Dictionary.com’s word of the year, “complicit.” Then President Trump went and again referred to Sen. Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas” and, as he does, changed the game.

So, real quick, here’s something I learned today, while researching the real-life woman we call Pocahontas: Pocahontas wasn’t her real name. Not really, at least.

Like many Powhatan Indians, “P” was given a series of names throughout the course of her life: her birth name was Matoaka, meaning “bright stream between the hills;” she was later given the name Amonute, which doesn’t translate from Powhatan to English; and later in life, after marrying John Rolfe and converting to Christianity, she changed her name to Rebecca.

According to Jamestown Secretary William Strachey, Pocahontas was a childhood nickname given to her by her father; translated to “little wanton,” it captured her adventurous independence. But according to William Stith, a 19th century historian who devoted his life to studying the Virginia colony, Pocahontas was something of a codename to ward of white curses. From his 1865 The History of the First Settlement of Virginia:

“The Indians carefully concealed [her real name] from the English and changed it to Pocahontas, out of a superstitious fear, lest they, by the knowledge of her true name, should be enabled to do her some hurt.”

As someone who just completed a book all about American myths, I understand this could be apocryphal; and it’s just as possible the name Pocahontas was both a childhood nickname and a curse deterrent. But if Stith’s correct and “Pocahontas” was something of a shield against vexation, then there’s a certain irony to Trump and his supporters using the sham sobriquet to slur Elizabeth Warren. The Powhatan prophecy came true, only for a woman by another name.

(For more Fun with Words, click HERE.)

 

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