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Bemidji group examines the history of Pocahontas

A group of 30 people discuss real story of Pocahontas and the impact the popular Disney movie has had at a gathering Tuesday night at Rail River Folk School. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI—The Disney version of the Pocahontas story is almost universally known: John Smith arrives in the Americas along with other white settlers and is captured by Natives, then rescued by Pocahontas. Everything ends well, and nobody gets hurt.

But Simone Senogles knows that story isn't true.

"Pocahontas was one of the first missing and murdered indigenous women," Senogles said during a Tuesday-night event meant to unpack the history of the highly popular myth. "It's still happening today."

Tuesday's event, hosted by the Bemidji branch of University Sin Fronteras, was prompted by President Donald Trump's remarks at a White House event honoring Navajo code talkers on Nov. 28, during which he called Sen. Elizabeth Warren "Pocahontas." A sexualized drawing of Pocahontas posted on social media by rapper Nicki Minaj also served as an impetus for the event.

For two hours, the group of 30 people discussed the real story of Pocahontas, and the impact Disney-esque myths surrounding her life have on Native American women today. According to research done by "Indian Country Today" the real Pocahontas—whose name was actually Matoaka—had a husband and child before she was kidnapped, forced to marry colonist John Rolfe and taken to England, where she died at age 21.

Most of the people who attended Tuesday's event said they came there to learn the real story, and to pay tribute to Pocahontas. Adam Thomas, a counselor at Oshki Manidoo, brought some of his students to the gathering.

"You see a lot of abuse when it comes to her image," Thomas said of Pocahontas. "It's like they're almost trying to shield people from it, to cover it up."

Anna Goldtooth said she hoped that learning Pocahontas' story would help her understand modern violence against Native American women. One in three Native women reported having been raped during her lifetime, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

"What she's turned into is like, she's not even human, and I guess all of that contributed to violence against Native women that's going on today," Goldtooth said. "I'm just here to learn about the real story about Pocahontas, and just how the myths can hurt us and affect us, and kind of how people's attitudes toward Native women make us fair game."

During the event, Senogles shared different versions of the Pocahontas story, including Disney movie stills, references to sexualized Halloween costumes and a portrait of Pocahontas saving John Smith—which never really happened.

"A young woman who lived 400 years ago became part of that intentional narrative of how this country got started, trying to gloss over the ugly truth, trying to make it seem as though, 'Oh, it's a beautiful love story between a Native woman and a white man,'" Senogles said. "It's a disservice to her, it's a disservice to our community, and it's a falsehood."

Universidad Sin Fronteras—an organization that aims to "decolonize" education with nine campuses in the United States and Mexico—will host more Bemidji events with similar social-justice related topics. For more information visit

Grace Pastoor

Grace Pastoor covers crime, courts and social issues for the Bemidji Pioneer. Contact her at (218) 333-9796 or

(218) 333-9796