The UN’s Philip Alston is an expert on deprivation ? and he wants to know why 41m Americans are living in poverty. The Guardian joined him on a special two-week mission into the dark heart of the world’s richest nation
by Ed Pilkinton
Los Angeles, California, 5 December
“You got a choice to make, man. You could go straight on to heaven. Or you could turn right, into that.”
We are in Los Angeles, in the heart of one of America’s wealthiest cities, and General Dogon, dressed in black, is our tour guide. Alongside him strolls another tall man, grey-haired and sprucely decked out in jeans and suit jacket. Professor Philip Alston is an Australian academic with a formal title: UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.
General Dogon, himself a veteran of these Skid Row streets, strides along, stepping over a dead rat without comment and skirting round a body wrapped in a worn orange blanket lying on the sidewalk.
The two men carry on for block after block after block of tatty tents and improvised tarpaulin shelters. Men and women are gathered outside the structures, squatting or sleeping, some in groups, most alone like extras in a low-budget dystopian movie.
We come to an intersection, which is when General Dogon stops and presents his guest with the choice. He points straight ahead to the end of the street, where the glistening skyscrapers of downtown LA rise up in a promise of divine riches.
Then he turns to the right, revealing the “black power” tattoo on his neck, and leads our gaze back into Skid Row bang in the center of LA’s downtown. That way lies 50 blocks of concentrated human humiliation. A nightmare in plain view, in the city of dreams.
Alston turns right.
So begins a two-week journey into the dark side of the American Dream. The spotlight of the UN monitor, an independent arbiter of human rights standards across the globe, has fallen on this occasion on the US, culminating on Friday with the release of his initial report in Washington.
His fact-finding mission into the richest nation the world has ever known has led him to investigate the tragedy at its core: the 41 million people who officially live in poverty.
Of those, nine million have zero cash income ? they do not receive a cent in sustenance.
Alston’s epic journey has taken him from coast to coast, deprivation to deprivation. Starting in LA and San Francisco, sweeping through the Deep South, traveling on to the colonial stain of Puerto Rico then back to the stricken coal country of West Virginia, he has explored the collateral damage of America’s reliance on private enterprise to the exclusion of public help.
The Guardian had unprecedented access to the UN envoy, following him as he crossed the country, attending all his main stops and witnessing the extreme poverty he is investigating firsthand.
Think of it as payback time. As the UN special rapporteur himself put it: “Washington is very keen for me to point out the poverty and human rights failings in other countries. This time I’m in the US.”
The tour comes at a critical moment for America and the world. It began on the day that Republicans in the US Senate voted for sweeping tax cuts that will deliver a bonanza for the super wealthy while in time raising taxes on many lower-income families. The changes will exacerbate wealth inequality that is already the most extreme in any industrialized nation, with three men ? Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffet ? owning as much as half of the entire American people.
A few days into the UN visit, Republican leaders took a giant leap further. They announced plans to slash key social programs in what amounts to an assault on the already threadbare welfare state.
“Look up! Look at those banks, the cranes, the luxury condos going up,” exclaimed General Dogon, who used to be homeless on Skid Row and now works as a local activist with Lacan. “Down here, there’s nothing. You see the tents back to back, there’s no place for folks to go.”
California made a suitable starting point for the UN visit. It epitomizes both the vast wealth generated in the tech boom for the 0.001%, and the resulting surge in housing costs that has sent homelessness soaring. Los Angeles, the city with by far the largest population of street dwellers in the country, is grappling with crisis numbers that increased 25% this past year to 55,000.
The safety net? It has too many holes in it for me
Ressy Finley, 41, was busy sterilizing the white bucket she uses to slop out in her tent in which she has lived on and off for more than a decade. She keeps her living area, a mass of worn mattresses and blankets and a few motley possessions, as clean as she can in a losing battle against rats and cockroaches. She also endures waves of bed bugs, and has large welts on her shoulder to prove it.
She receives no formal income, and what she makes on recycling bottles and cans is no way enough to afford the average rents of $1,400 a month for a tiny one-bedroom. A friend brings her food every couple of days, the rest of the time she relies on nearby missions.
She cried twice in the course of our short conversation, once when she recalled how her infant son was taken from her arms by social workers because of her drug habit (he is now 14; she has never seen him again). The second time was when she alluded to the sexual abuse that set her as a child on the path towards drugs and homelessness.
Given all that, it’s remarkable how positive Finley remains. What does she think of the American Dream, the idea that everyone can make it if they try hard enough? She replies instantly: “I know I’m going to make it.”
A 41-year-old woman living on the sidewalk in Skid Row going to make it?
“Sure I will, so long as I keep the faith.”
What does “making it” mean to her?
“I want to be a writer, a poet, an entrepreneur, a therapist.”
Robert Chambers occupies the next patch of sidewalk along from Finley’s. He’s created an area around his tent out of wooden pallets, what passes in Skid Row for a cottage garden.
He has a sign up saying “Homeless Writers Coalition”, the name of a group he runs to give homeless people dignity against what he calls the “animalistic” aspects of their lives. He’s referring not least to the lack of public bathrooms that forces people to relieve themselves on the streets.
LA authorities have promised to provide more access to toilets, a critical issue given the deadly outbreak of Hepatitis A that began in San Diego and is spreading on the west coast claiming 21 lives mainly through lack of sanitation in homeless encampments. At night local parks and amenities are closed specifically to keep homeless people out.
Skid Row has had the use of nine toilets at night for 1,800 street-faring people. That’s a ratio well below that mandated by the UN in its camps for Syrian refugees.
“It’s inhuman actually, and eventually in the end you will acquire animalistic psychology,” Chambers said.
He has been living on the streets for almost a year, having violated his parole terms for drug possession and in turn being turfed out of his low-cost apartment. There’s no help for him now, he said, no question of “making it”.
“The safety net? It has too many holes in it for me.”
Of all the people who crossed paths with the UN monitor, Chambers was the most dismissive of the American Dream. “People don’t realize ? it’s never getting better, there’s no recovery for people like us. I’m 67, I have a heart condition, I shouldn’t be out here. I might not be too much longer.”
That was a lot of bad karma to absorb on day one, and it rattled even as seasoned a student of hardship as Alston. As UN special rapporteur, he’s reported on dire poverty and its impact on human rights in Saudi Arabia and China among other places. But Skid Row?
“I was feeling pretty depressed,” he told the Guardian later. “The endless drumbeat of horror stories. At a certain point you do wonder what can anyone do about this, let alone me.”
And then he took a flight up to San Francisco, to the Tenderloin district where homeless people congregate, and walked into St Boniface church.
What he saw there was an analgesic for his soul.
San Francisco, California, 6 December
About 70 homeless people were quietly sleeping in pews at the back of the church, as they are allowed to do every weekday morning, with worshippers praying harmoniously in front of them. The church welcomes them in as part of the Catholic concept of extending the helping hand.
“I found the church surprisingly uplifting,” Alston said. “It was such a simple scene and such an obvious idea. It struck me ? Christianity, what the hell is it about if it’s not this?”
It was a rare drop of altruism on the west coast, competing against a sea of hostility. More than 500 anti-homeless laws have been passed in Californian cities in recent years. At a federal level, Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon who Donald Trump appointed US housing secretary, is decimating government spending on affordable housing.
Perhaps the most telling detail: apart from St Boniface and its sister church, no other place of worship in San Francisco welcomes homeless people. In fact, many have begun, even at this season of goodwill, to lock their doors to all comers simply so as to exclude homeless people.
As Tiny Gray-Garcia, herself on the streets, described it to Alston, there is a prevailing attitude that she and her peers have to contend with every day. She called it the “violence of looking away”.
That cruel streak ? the violence of looking away ? has been a feature of American life since the nation’s founding. The casting off the yoke of overweening government (the British monarchy) came to be equated in the minds of many Americans with states’ rights and the individualistic idea of making it on your own ? a view that is fine for those fortunate enough to do so, less happy if you’re born on the wrong side of the tracks.
Countering that has been the conviction that society must protect its own against the vagaries of hunger or unemployment that informed Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson. But in recent times the prevailing winds have blown strongly in the “you’re on your own, buddy” direction. Ronald Reagan set the trend with his 1980s tax cuts, followed by Bill Clinton, whose 1996 decision to scrap welfare payments for low-income families is still punishing millions of Americans.
The cumulative attack has left struggling families, including the 15 million children who are officially in poverty, with dramatically less support than in any other industrialized economy. Now they face perhaps the greatest threat of all.
As Alston himself has written in an essay on Trump’s populism and the aggressive challenge it poses to human rights: “These are extraordinarily dangerous times. Almost anything seems possible.”
Lowndes County, Alabama, 9 December
Trump’s undermining of human rights, combined with the Republican threat to pare back welfare programs next year in order to pay for some of the tax cuts for the rich they are rushing through Congress, will hurt African Americans disproportionately.
Black people are 13% of the US population, but 23% of those officially in poverty and 39% of the homeless.
The racial element of America’s poverty crisis is seen nowhere more clearly than in the Deep South, where the open wounds of slavery continue to bleed. The UN special rapporteur chose as his next stop the “Black Belt,” the term that originally referred to the rich dark soil that exists in a band across Alabama but over time came to describe its majority African American population.
The link between soil type and demographics was not coincidental. Cotton was found to thrive in this fertile land, and that in turn spawned a trade in slaves to pick the crop. Their descendants still live in the Black Belt, still mired in poverty among the worst in the union.
You can trace the history of America’s shame, from slave times to the present day, in a set of simple graphs. The first shows the cotton-friendly soil of the Black Belt, then the slave population, followed by modern black residence and today’s extreme poverty ? they all occupy the exact same half-moon across Alabama.
There are numerous ways you could parse the present parlous state of Alabama’s black community. Perhaps the starkest is the fact that in the Black Belt so many families still have no access to sanitation. Thousands of people continue to live among open sewers of the sort normally associated with the developing world.
The crisis was revealed by the Guardian earlier this year to have led to an ongoing endemic of hookworm, an intestinal parasite that is transmitted through human waste. It is found in Africa and South Asia, but had been assumed eradicated in the US years ago.
Yet here the worm still is, sucking the blood of poor people, in the home state of Trump’s US attorney general Jeff Sessions.
A disease of the developing world thriving in the world’s richest country.
The open sewerage problem is especially acute in Lowndes County, a majority black community that was an epicenter of the civil rights movement having been the setting of Martin Luther King’s Selma to Montgomery voting rights march in 1965.
Despite its proud history, Catherine Flowers estimates that 70% of households in the area either “straight pipe” their waste directly onto open ground, or have defective septic tanks incapable of dealing with heavy rains.
When her group, Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise (Acre), pressed local authorities to do something about it, officials invested $6m in extending waste treatment systems to primarily white-owned businesses while bypassing overwhelmingly black households.
“That’s a glaring example of injustice,” Flowers said. “People who cannot afford their own systems are left to their own devices while businesses who do have the money are given public services.”
Walter, a Lowndes County resident who asked not to give his last name for fear that his water supply would be cut off as a reprisal for speaking out, lives with the daily consequences of such public neglect. “You get a good hard rain and it backs up into the house.”
That’s a polite way of saying that sewerage gurgles up into his kitchen sink, hand basin and bath, filling the house with a sickly-sweet stench.
Given these circumstances, what does he think of the ideology that anyone can make it if they try?
“I suppose they could if they had the chance,” Walter said. He paused, then added: “Folks aren’t given the chance.”
Had he been born white, would his sewerage problems have been fixed by now?
After another pause, he said: “Not being racist, but yeah, they would.”
Round the back of Walter’s house the true iniquity of the situation reveals itself. The yard is laced with small channels running from neighboring houses along which dark liquid flows. It congregates in viscous pools directly underneath the mobile home in which Walter’s son, daughter-in-law and 16-year-old granddaughter live.
It is the ultimate image of the lot of Alabama’s impoverished rural black community. As American citizens they are as fully entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It’s just that they are surrounded by pools of excrement.
This week, the Black Belt bit back. On Tuesday a new line was added to that simple graphic, showing exactly the same half-moon across Alabama except this time it was not black but blue.
It depicted the army of African American voters who turned out against the odds to send Doug Jones to the US Senate, the first Democrat from Alabama to do so in a generation. It delivered a bloody nose to his opponent, the alleged child molester Roy Moore, and his puppetmasters Steve Bannon and Donald Trump.
It was arguably the most important expression of black political muscle in the region since King’s 1965 march. If the previous entries in the graphic could be labeled “soil”, “slavery” and “poverty”, this one should be captioned “empowerment”.
Guayama, Puerto Rico, 10 December
So how does Alston view the role of UN rapporteur and his visit? His full report on the US will be released next May before being presented to the UN human rights council in Geneva.
Nobody expects much to come of that: the world body has no teeth with which to enforce good behavior on recalcitrant governments. But Alston hopes that his visit will have an impact by shaming the US into reflecting on its values.
“My role is to hold governments to account,” he said. “If the US administration doesn’t want to talk about the right to housing, healthcare or food, then there are still basic human rights standards that have to be met. It’s my job to point that out.”
Alston’s previous investigations into extreme poverty in places like Mauritania pulled no punches. We can expect the same tough love when it comes to his analysis of Puerto Rico, the next stop on his journey into America’s dark side.
Three months after Maria, the devastation wrought by the hurricane has been well documented. It tore 70,000 homes to shreds, brought industry to a standstill and caused a total blackout of the island that continues to cause havoc.
But Puerto Rico’s plight long predates Maria, rooted in the indifference with which it has been regarded since being acquired as a spoil of war in 1898. Almost half of Americans have no idea that the 3.5 million Puerto Ricans on the island are US citizens, which adds insult to the injury of the territory having no representation in Congress while its fiscal policies are dictated by an oversight board imposed by Washington. What was that about casting off the yoke of overweening government?
Nor do most people appreciate that the island has twice the proportion of people in poverty (44%) than the lowliest US state, including Alabama (19%). And that was before the hurricane, which some estimates suggest has pushed the poverty rate up to 60%.
“Puerto Rico is a sacrifice zone,” said Ruth Santiago, a community rights lawyer. “We are ruled by the United States but we are never consulted ? we have no influence, we’re just their plaything.”
The UN monitor was given a sense of what being a plaything of the US means in practice when he travelled south to Guayama, a town of 42,000 close to where Maria made landfall. Devastation was everywhere ? houses mangled, roofs missing, power lines drooping alarmingly overhead.
If Lyndon Johnson declared a war on poverty, then Trump is waging a war on the poor
Looming over the community is a coal-fired power plant built by the Puerto Rican branch of AES Corporation, a Virginia-headquartered multinational. The plant’s smoke stack dominates the horizon, as does a huge mound of residue from the combusted coal that rises to at least 70ft like a giant sandcastle.
The mound is exposed to the elements and local people complain that toxins from it leach into the sea, destroying the livelihoods of fishermen through mercury poisoning. They also fear that dust coming off the pile causes health problems, a concern shared by local doctors who told the UN monitor that they see a high incidence of respiratory disease and cancer.
“It kills the leaves of my mango tree,” said Flora Picar Cruz, 82. She was lying in bed at midday, breathing with difficulty through an oxygen mask.
Studies of the pile have found perilous levels of toxic substances including arsenic, boron, chloride and chromium. Even so, the Trump administration is in the process of easing the relatively lax regulations on monitoring dangerous effluents from it.
AES Puerto Rico told the Guardian that there was nothing to worry about, as the plant was one of the cleanest in the US having been purpose built to avoid any run-off into air or sea. That’s not what the people of Guayama think. They fear that the age-old pattern of being taken for granted by the US colonizer is about to rise to the next level.
When such attitudes are replicated across the island it helps explain why so many Puerto Ricans are voting with their feet: almost 200,000 have packed their bags and quit for Florida, New York and Pennsylvania since the hurricane, adding to the more than 5m who were already on the US mainland. Which gives a whole new meaning to the American Dream ? anyone can make it, so long as they abandon their families, their homes, and their culture and head off into a strange and forbidding land.
Charleston, West Virginia, 13 December
“You’re an amazing people! We’re going to take care of a lot of years of horrible abuse, OK? You can count on it 100%.”
Donald Trump’s promise to the white voters of West Virginia was made just as he was securing the Republican presidential nomination in May 2016. Six months later, his audience handsomely repaid him with a landslide victory.
It is not surprising that white families in West Virginia should have responded positively to Trump’s charm offensive, given that he offered them the world ? “We’re going to put the miners back to work!” After all, numerically a majority of all those living in poverty nationwide ? 27 million people ? are white.
In West Virginia in particular, white families have a lot to feel sore about. Mechanization and the decline of coal mining have decimated the state, leading to high unemployment and stagnant wages. The transfer of jobs from the mines and steel mills to Walmart has led to male workers earning on average $3.50 an hour less today than they did in 1979.
What is surprising is that so many proud working folk should have entrusted their dreams to a (supposed) billionaire who built his real estate empire on the back of handouts from his father.
Before he ran for the presidency, Trump showed scant interest in the struggles of low-income families, white or otherwise. After almost a year in the Oval Office, there is similarly little sign of those campaign promises being kept.
Quite the contrary. When the UN rapporteur decamped in Charleston, West Virginia on Wednesday as the final stop in his tour, he was inundated with evidence that the president is turning the screws on the very people who elected him.
That same day, Republicans in the Senate and House were fusing their plans for tax cuts ahead of a final vote next week. Many West Virginians will be lulled into believing that the changes are designed to help them, as initially everybody in the state will pay less tax.
But come 2027 when deficit-saving changes kick in, the bottom 80% of the population will pay more, while the top 1% will continue to enjoy a $21,000 bonanza.
“Trump’s policies will exacerbate inequality, suppress wages and make it harder for low-income families to seek assistance,” said Ted Boettner, executive director of the non-partisan West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy.
If sewerage is the abiding image of the burden of the Black Belt, then a mouthful of rotting teeth is West Virginia’s.
A patient who came into the clinic needing all 30 of his teeth to have root canal surgery. Photograph: Doctors at Health Right
Doctors at Health Right, a volunteer-based medical center in Charleston that treats 21,000 low-income working people free of charge, presented the UN monitor with a photograph of one of its dentistry clients.
The man is only 32, but when he opened his mouth he turned into one of Macbeth’s witches. His few remaining rotting teeth and greenish-blue gums looked like the festering broth in their burning cauldrons.
Adult dentistry is uncovered by Medicaid unless it is an emergency, and so people do the logical thing ? they do nothing until their abscesses erupt and they have to go to ER. One woman seen by the center’s mobile dentistry clinic was found to have nothing but 30 roots in her mouth, all of which needed surgery.
In other briefings, Alston was given a picture of life under siege for West Virginia’s low-income families. If Lyndon Johnson declared a war on poverty, then Trump is waging a war on the poor.
People are jailed for years because they cannot afford bail awaiting trial; private detectives are used to snoop on disability benefit claimants; mandatory minimum drug sentences are back in fashion; Jeff Sessions is scrapping federal rehabilitation schemes for those released from prison; tenants in subsidized housing are living in fear that they will be evicted for the slightest infraction ? the list goes on and on.
And the result of this relentless drubbing? “People end up fighting each other,” said Eli Baumwell, policy director of the ACLU in West Virginia. “You become so obsessed with what you’ve got and what your neighbor has got that you become resentful. That’s what Trump is doing ? turning one against the other.”
And so it was that Philip Alston boarded one last plane and headed for Washington, carrying with him the distilled torment of the American people.
At one point in the trip Alston revealed that he had had a sleepless night, reflecting on the lost souls we had met in Skid Row.
He wondered about how a person in his position ? “I’m old, male, white, rich and I live very well” ? would react to one of those homeless people. “He would look at him and see someone who is dirty, who doesn’t wash, who he doesn’t want to be around.”
Then Alston had an epiphany.
“I realized that’s how government sees them. But what I see is the failure of society. I see a society that let that happen, that is not doing what it should. And it’s very sad.”
The UN special rapporteur’s tour was done.
Indian Country Today
Despite what many people believe due to longstanding and inaccurate accounts in history books and movies such as Disney’s Pocahontas, the true story of Pocahontas is not one of a young Native Powhatan woman with a raccoon friend who dove off of mountain-like cliffs off the coasts of Virginia. (Note: there are no cliffs on the coast of Virginia.)
The true story of Pocahontas is a tale of tragedy and heartbreak.
It is time to bust up the misconceptions perpetuated over 400 years regarding the young daughter of Powhatan chief Wahunsenaca. The truth—gathered from years of extensive research of the historical record, books, and oral histories from self-identified descendants of Pocahontas and tribal peoples of Virginia —is not for the faint of heart.
A Warning To Our Readers: Mature Subject Matter Not Suitable for Children
The story of Pocahontas is a tragic tale of a young Native girl who was kidnapped, sexually assaulted and allegedly murdered by those who were supposed to keep her safe.
Pocahontas’ Mother, Also Named Pocahontas, Died While Giving Birth to Her
This is in many historical accounts, though not always. It is important to note that Pocahontas was born to her mother, named Pocahontas and her father Wahunsenaca, (sometimes spelled Wahunsenakah), who later became the paramount chief.
Her name at birth was Matoaka, which means “flower between two streams,” and according to Mattaponi history was likely given to her because she was born between the two rivers of Mattaponi and Pamunkey (York).
Due to his wife’s death, Wahunsenaca was devastated and little Matoaka became his favorite because she looked like her mother. She was raised by her aunts and other women of the Mattaponi tribe at Werowocomoco.
As was custom at the time, as the Paramount Chief of the Powhatan Chiefdom, Wahunsenaca had other wives from the other villages and little Matoaka had many loving brothers and sisters.
Because of his lingering grief and due to the reminder she gave to him of her mother, Wahunsenaca often called his daughter the endearing name of Pocahontas.
John Smith Came to the Powhatan When Pocahontas Was about 9 or 10
According to Mattaponi oral history, little Matoaka was possibly about 10 years old when John Smith and English colonists arrived in Tsenacomoca in the spring of 1607. John Smith was about 27 years old. They were never married nor involved.
Pocahontas Never Saved the Life of John Smith
The children of the Powhatan were very closely watched and cared for by all members of the tribe. Since Pocahontas was living with her father, Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca, at Werowocomoco, and because she was the daughter of a chief, she was likely held to even stricter standards and provided with more structure and cultural training.
When she was a child, John Smith and English colonists stayed near the Powhatan on the nearby Jamestown Island, but later began to explore outlying areas. Smith was feared by many Native people because he was known to enter villages and put guns to heads of chiefs demanding food and supplies.
In the winter of 1607, the colonists and Smith met with Powhatan warriors and Smith was captured by the chief’s younger brother.
Because the English and Powhatan feared the actions of the Spanish, they formed an alliance. Eventually and according to oral history and contemporary written accounts by the Mattaponi, Wahunsenaca grew to like Smith, eventually offering him the position of ‘werowance’ or leader of the colonists as recognized by the Powhatan as well as a much more livable area for his people with great access to game and seafood.
Years later, Smith alleged that Pocahontas saved his life in the four-day process of becoming a werowance. But according to Mattaponi oral and contemporary written accounts, there would be no reason to kill a man designated to receive an honor by the chief.
Additionally, children were not allowed to attend any sort of religious ritual similar to the werowance ceremony.
She could not have thrown herself in front of John Smith to beg for his life for two reasons: Smith was being honored, and she would not have been allowed to be there.
Pocahontas Never Defied Her Father to Bring Food to John Smith or Jamestown
Some historical accounts claim Pocahontas defied her father to bring food to the colonists of Jamestown. According to the history of the Mattaponi tribe as well as simple facts, these claims could not be true.
Jamestown was 12 miles from Werowocomoco and the likelihood that a 10-year-old daughter would travel alone are inconsistent with Powhatan culture. She as well as other tribal members did travel to Jamestown, but as a gesture of peace.
Additionally, travel to Jamestown required crossing large bodies of water and the use of 400-pound dugout canoes. It took a team of strong people to lift them into the water.
It is likely Pocahontas served as a symbol of peace by simply being present as a child among her people to show no ill intentions when her people met with the Jamestown settlers.
Pocahontas Did Not Sneak Into Jamestown to Warn John Smith About a Death Plot
In 1608 and 1609, John Smith’s role as the werowance (chief) of the colonists had taken an ugly turn. The colonists made inadequate attempts to plant crops to harvest, and Smith violently demanded supplies from surrounding villages after once again holding a gun to the heads of village leaders.
Accounts from Mattaponi histories tell of one tribal woman proclaiming to Smith, “You call yourself a Christian, yet you leave us with no food for the winter.”
Pocahontas’ father, who had befriended Smith, once said to him, “I have not treated any of my werowances as well as you, yet you are the worst werowance I have!”
Smith claimed Wahunsenaca wanted to kill him, and asserted he knew of the plot because Pocahontas had come to warn him.
Due to the icy conditions at the time and because of the many watchful eyes attending to the daughter of a chief, as well as gestures of peace by the Powhatan to include additional provisions, Native historians rebuff the historical claims of Smith as completely fabricated.
To further prove Smith’s tale was a fabrication, a letter by Smith written in 1608 was published without Smith’s knowledge. The letter makes no claim of Pocahontas trying to save his life on two separate occasions. It wasn’t until Smith published his book General Historie of Virginia in 1624 that he claimed Pocahontas had twice saved his life. Any of the people who could have refuted Smith’s claims by that time were no longer alive.
As Colonists Terrorized Native People, Pocahontas Married and Became Pregnant
The early 1600’s were a horrible time for tribes near Werowocomoco. Native tribes once comfortable wearing clothing suitable for summer — including exposed breasts for Native women and little or nothing for children — found themselves being sexually targeted by English colonists.
Young children were targets of rape and Native women in the tribe would resort to offering themselves to men to keep their children safe. The Powhatan people were shocked by the behavior and were horrified that the English government offered them no protections.
In the midst of the horrible and atrocious acts committed by the colonists, Matoaka was coming of age. During a ceremony, Matoaka was to choose a new name, and she selected Pocahontas, after her mother. During a courtship dance, it is likely she danced with Kocoum, the younger brother of Potowomac Chief Japazaw.
She married the young warrior at about 14 and soon became pregnant.
It was at this time rumors began to surface that colonists planned to kidnap the beloved chief’s daughter Pocahontas.
Pocahontas Was Kidnapped, Her Husband Was Murdered and She Was Forced to Give Up Her First Child
When Pocahontas was about 15 or 16, the rumors of a possible kidnapping had become more of a threat and she was living with her husband Kocoum at his Potowomac village.
An English colonist by the name of Captain Samuel Argall sought to find her, thinking that a captured daughter of the chief would thwart attacks by Natives.
Hearing of her whereabouts, Argall came to the village and demanded Chief Japazaw, brother of Pocahontas’ husband, to give up Pocahontas or suffer violence against his village. Overcome with grief at a horrible choice, he relented with a hopeful promise that she would only be gone temporarily. That was a promise Argall quickly broke.
Before Argall left the village, he gave Chief Japazaw a copper pot. He later claimed to have traded it for her. This “trade” is still taught by historians. This is akin to the way that Smith ‘traded’ for corn by holding a gun to the heads of chiefs.
Before leaving the village, Pocahontas had to give her baby (referred to as little Kocoum) to the women of the village. Trapped onboard an English ship, she was not aware that when her husband returned to their village, he was killed by the colonists.
The tribal chiefs of the Powhatan never retaliated for the kidnapping of Pocahontas, fearing they would be captured and that the beloved daughter of the chief and the “Peace Symbol of the Powhatan” might be harmed.
Pocahontas Was Raped While in Captivity and Became Pregnant With Her Second Child
According to Dr. Linwood Custalow, a historian of the Mattaponi Tribe and the custodian of the sacred oral history of Pocahontas, soon after being kidnapped, she was suffering from depression and was growing more fearful and withdrawn. Her extreme anxiety was so severe her English captors allowed Pocahontas’ eldest sister Mattachanna and her husband Uttamattamakin to come to her aid.
Dr. Custalow writes in his book, The True Story of Pocahontas, The Other Side of History, that when Mattachanna and her husband Uttamattamakin, a spiritual advisor to Chief Wahunsenaca, Pocahontas confided in her sister.
When Mattachanna and Uttamattamakin arrived at Jamestown, Pocahontas confided in that she had been raped. Mattaponi sacred oral history is very clear on this: Pocahontas was raped. It is possible that it had been done to her by more than one person and repeatedly. My grandfather and other teachers of Mattaponi oral history said that Pocahontas was raped.
The possibility of being taken captive was a danger to be aware of in Powhatan Society, but rape was not tolerated. Rape in Powhatan Society was virtually unheard of because the punishment for such actions was so severe. Powhatan society did not have prisons. Punishment for wrongful actions often consisted of banishment from the tribe.
Historians differ on where Pocahontas was held, but tribal historians believe she was likely held in Jamestown, but was relocated to Henrico to when she was pregnant.
Pocahontas had a son, Thomas.
John Rolfe Married Pocahontas to Create a Native Alliance in Tobacco Production
Mattaponi history is clear that Pocahontas had a son out of wedlock, Thomas, prior to her marriage to John Rolfe. Prior to that marriage, the colonists pressed Pocahontas to become “civilized” and often told her that her father did not love her because he had not come to rescue her.
Pocahontas often tore off her English clothes, because they were uncomfortable. Eventually, Pocahontas was converted to Christianity and took the name Rebecca.
In the midst of her captivity, the English colony of Jamestown was failing. John Rolfe was under a 1616 deadline to become profitable or lose the support of England. Rolfe sought to learn tobacco curing techniques from the Powhatan, but curing tobacco was a sacred practice not to be shared with outsiders. Realizing the political strength of aligning himself with the tribe, he eventually married Pocahontas.
Though some historians claim Pocahontas and Rolfe married for love, it is not a certainty, as Pocahontas was never allowed to see her family, child or father after being kidnapped.
After the two were married, the Powhatan spiritual leaders and family to Pocahontas shared the curing practice with Rolfe. Soon afterwards, Rolfe’s tobacco was a sensation in England, which saved the colony of Jamestown, as they finally found a profitable venture.
The Powhatan tribal lands were now highly sought after for the tobacco trade and the tribe suffered great losses of life and land at the hands of greedy tobacco farmers.
It is worth noting that though it was custom for a Powhatan father to give away his daughter at a marriage, Wahunsenaca did not attend the wedding of his daughter to Rolfe for fear of being captured or killed. He did send a strand of pearls as a gift.
As Dr. Custalow wrote in The True Story of Pocahontas, The Other Side of History:
Although Wahunsenaca did not attend the wedding, we know through sacred Mattaponi oral history that he gave Pocahontas a pearl necklace as a wedding gift. The pearls were obtained from the Chesapeake Bay oyster beds. The necklace was notable for the large size and fine quality of the pearls. Pearls of the size were rare, making them a suitable gift for a paramount chief’s daughter. No mention of this necklace has been found in the English writings, but a portrait of Pocahontas wearing a pearl necklace used to hang in the Gov.’s mansion in Richmond.
Pocahontas Was Brought to England To Raise Money and Was Then Likely Murdered
Rumors of the colonists desire to bring Pocahontas made its way to the Powhatan, who feared for her well-being and considered an attempt to rescue her. But Wahunsenaca feared his daughter might be harmed.
Rebecca “Pocahontas” Rolfe traveled to England with John Rolfe, her son Thomas Rolfe, Captain John Argall (who had kidnapped her) and several Native tribal members, including her sister Mattachanna.
Though many settlers were committing atrocities against the Powhatan, many elites in England did not approve of the mistreatment of natives. The bringing of Pocahontas to England to show friendship with Native nations was a key to continued financial support for the colonists.
According to the accounts of Mattachanna, she realized that she was being used and desperately desired to return home to her father and little Kocoum. During her travels in England, Pocahontas did meet John Smith and expressed outrage due to the mistreatment of his position as leader of the colonists and the betrayal to the Powhatan people.
After the journey and showing off of Pocahontas to the English elites, plans were made to return to Virginia in the spring of 1617. According to a recounting by Mattachanna, she was in good health while in England and on the ship preparing to go home.
Shortly after a dinner with Rolfe and Argall, she vomited and died. Those tribal members who were accompanying her, including her sister Mattachanna, said she was in previous good health and assessed she must have been poisoned due to her sudden death.
According to Mattaponi oral history, many of the Native people accompanying Pocahontas were sold as servants or carnival attractions or sent to Bermuda if they became pregnant after being raped and sold into slavery.
Pocahontas was just under 21 at the time of her death. Instead of being taken home and laid to rest with her father, Rolfe and Argall took her to Gravesend, England, where she was buried at Saint George’s Church, March 21, 1617. Though Virginia tribes have requested that her remains returned for repatriation, officials in England say the exact whereabouts of her remains are not known.
Wahunsenaca learned from Mattachanna that his beloved daughter had died but had never betrayed her people, as some historians claim. Heartbroken that he had not ever rescued his daughter, he died from grief less than a year after the death of Pocahontas.
The Descendants of Pocahontas
Oral histories of both the Mattaponi and Patawomeck and historical references say she mothered two children, Thomas Rolfe, who was left in England after the death of his mother, and ‘little Kocoum.’
According to Deyo, Little Kocoum was the name that Dr. Linwood Custalow used for the purpose of his book to reference a small child whose name was not yet known. In the sacred oral history of the Mattaponi, the child was raised by the Patawomeck Tribe. The name of that child was passed down in the Patawomeck oral history was discovered to be Ka-Okee, a daughter.
This lineage to Ka-Okee includes the world famous entertainer Wayne Newton, a member of the Virginia state-recognized Powhatan Patawomeck tribe.
Thomas Rolfe stayed in England and was educated there. He later returned to the Powhatan as an adult. He was married and had many descendants.
A special thank you to the following sources:
Mattaponi Tribal Historian, Dr. Linwood ‘Little Bear’ Custalow, and Angela L. Daniel “Silver Star’ for the book The True Story of Pocahontas, The Other Side of History
Pamunkey Chief Robert Gray
Patawomeck Chief John Lightner
Powhatan Patawomeck Tribal Historian Bill Deyo
Countless council members and tribal members of the 11 Tribes in Virginia, who have been gracious in sharing their stories.
Follow the author of this article, Vincent Schilling (Akwesasne Mohawk) – ICMN’s Arts and Entertainment, Pow Wows and Sports Editor – Follow @VinceSchilling