Laredo’s Princess Pocahontas Pageant And Celebration Of Colonialism

Laredo’s Princess Pocahontas Pageant And Celebration Of Colonialism

Once a year white and Hispanic debutants dress up as Indigenous Americans and have a pageant during when colonialism is celebrated for George Washington’s birthday.

Did y’all know about this? It’s been going on for well over 100 years now. It’s not only bizarre that it’s still happening today but the more you learn about it, the more offensive it becomes. Yet, these week-long festivities in Laredo bring in thousands of people from surrounding areas, (and it’s been a good source of revenue for the area).

In 1775 an American fraternal organization was founded called “The Improved Order of Red Men.” This organization is still in existence today. Despite their name implicating that they may be Indigenous Americans, they are not.

In 1897, white and Hispanic men in Laredo, who was part of the Improved Order of Red Men, got together and made what they wanted to be a “pure American holiday.”

Prior to this, Laredo was predominantly influenced by Mexican ideals and culture. The holiday they decided on was George Washington’s birthday.

Laredo is the only city in America, which celebrates George Washington’s Birthday with a parade and week-long festivities.

The Improved Order of Red Men is still in existence today, in 2021, and the organization is still comprised of mostly white men. In fact, up until 1974, only white men could join this organization. Most disturbing about this is that this organization not only dresses in Indigenous American attire, but they also use Indigenous terms. For example, the National President of the organization is called the Great Incohonee and they call their meeting place the Wigwam.

Is this Cultural Appropriation? Yes.

While the Improved Order of Red Men has strictly been for men, they also have a women’s branch called the Degree of Pocahontas.

While the Improved Order of Red Men was the initial group to start the George Washington Birthday celebrations in Laredo that include the Princess Pocahontas Pageant, the modern organizers of these festivities is an organization called Washington’s Birthday Celebration.

Why Pocahontas?

The true story of Pocahontas, if you are unfamiliar with it is horrific.

Her real name was Amonute, and when she was 15 or 16 years old, she was kidnapped, raped, had a child stolen from her, and then at the age of 20, murdered. It was white colonizers who did this to her.

During Laredo’s Princess Pocahontas Pageant, young debutants dress up as Pocahontas and Indigenous Americans and parade on stage. None of the young people who wear these costumes are actually Indigenous Americans, they are white and Latina. The costumes they wear typically cost between $5,000 and $50,000 and they never depict Comanches, Apaches, or other tribes with real ties to Mexican Americans. Instead, the dresses are fantasy knockoffs of the Onondaga, the Tlingit, and similar faraway groups with no historical connection to border life. 

Is this bizarre?

Here is a quote from Elaine Peña’s “De-politicizing border space” essay:

Celebration officials’ choice of George Washington and Pocahontas to epitomize American values and border life is representative of Laredo’s selective disavowal of Mexican culture, which is the dominant component of the city’s historical, cultural, political, and linguistic identity. Theoretically, the festival strengthens bi-national dialogue; it aims to build bridges between Mexican customs and American values. But this communication is limited to a few rituals, most notably the abrazo children ceremony.

Another quoted tidbit: “Further, the celebration impels xenophobic attitudes within the Mexican-American community in Laredo by setting the boundaries of self-identification: I am American, not Mexican.”

Years ago, a filmmaker named Cristina Ibarra documented these events at the border. Here is what she said in a 2014 interview:

If you think about what was happening back then, when the celebration started, it was after the US-Mexico war. And after the war, and even before the war, Mexican families were already getting displaced from their land.

Texas was one of the places that had the most lynching. There were so much violence and racial tension all over the state, especially in the northern part. In Laredo, families were able to maintain their land a lot more than in the northern parts of Texas. I’m not saying families didn’t lose their land in Laredo, just not to the same extent as elsewhere. The Anglos just didn’t know what to do with this land—it was too dry. So for many years, the people in Laredo were left alone. The two Laredos have such an independent spirit: they didn’t want to be a part of Mexico, they didn’t want to be a part of the US, they weren’t part of Texas for a little bit. There’s just a very independent spirit there that comes from having to survive this very tough terrain.

Her entire documentary, which highlights colonialism as part of Washington’s Birthday Celebration, can be found both on YouTube and PBS.

120 years after inception, these festivities bring revenue into Laredo.

In the age of “cancel culture,” it is not clear if activists have targeted these festivities as egregious offenders of cultural appropriations.

Living in Dallas, I was unaware that this annual tradition in Laredo was happening. Unless you live down south, you may not have been aware, either. A reader had contacted me about it. As seen in many of the links I provided in this article, people all over Texas and America have called these Laredo traditions bizarre, weird, and offensive for decades. However, seeing that I am far from the first person to bring attention to it and it is such a large source of revenue for the city, I question whether or not Laredo will come to grips with the offensiveness of their annual tradition.

The following will remain as fact, whether Laredo embraces them or not:

  • Other people’s cultures, should not be used as costumes.
  • The locals I spoke with at Webb County Heritage Foundation and the reader who contacted me made it clear that the Indigenous Community in the area has spoken against these festivities.
  • The real Pocahontas was a victim of colonization, not a beauty queen.
  • The history of colonization in America is a history of genocide and the displacement of Indigenous communities. Colonization will always be equated to genocide.
  • Celebrating colonization in the 21st century will be viewed by most as horrific and disturbing.
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