At a ceremony honoring Native American code-talkers, Donald Trump managed to work in one of his favorite slurs—calling Sen. Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas.” I don’t think he planned to say it. It just came out—like all of his mindless blurts—possibly because standing next to Native Americans triggered a Trumpian synapse in his wandering mind—causing a Homer-Simpson-like internal dialogue: “Hmmm. Native Americans. Elizabeth Warren. Pocahontas. That’s a good one.”
What he actually said was incongruous and rather incoherent, as always—more a tweet than a statement. “You were here long before any of us were here,” he said, standing—ironically—in front of a portrait of Andrew Jackson, who was notorious as a killer of Native Americans. “Although we have a representative in Congress who they say was here a long time ago. They call her ‘Pocahontas.’”
But, although it was an egregious and seemingly nonsensical non-sequitur, the Native Americans on stage, and many who saw it on the news, took his remark for what it was: a racial slur. In response, the National Congress of American Indians [NCAI] issued a letter condemning Trump for his remark. The Navajo Nation weighed in, too. Here are their responses:
“We regret that the President’s use of the name Pocahontas as a slur to insult a political adversary is overshadowing the true purpose of today’s White House ceremony,” stated NCAI President Jefferson Keel, “Today was about recognizing the remarkable courage and invaluable contributions of our Native code talkers. That’s who we honor and everyday — the three code talkers present at the White House representing the 10 other elderly living code talkers who were unable to join them, and the hundreds of other code talkers from the Cherokee, Choctaw, Comanche, Lakota, Meskwaki, Mohawk, Navajo, Tlingit, and other tribes who served during World Wars I and II.”
Trump’s unthinking remark also indicates that he has no idea—nor does he care—that there are dozens of Native American tribes, that all Native Americans are not alike, and that his use of the name Pocahontas to represent all Native Americans is insulting.
The Navajo Nation saw ignorance at play, too. In a statement, Navajo Nation Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty said:
“Trump’s careless comment is the latest example of systemic, deep-seated ignorance of Native Americans and our intrinsic right to exist and practice our ways of life…The Navajo Code Talkers are not pawns to advance a personal grudge, or promote false narratives. Such pandering dishonors the sacrifice of our national heroes.
Crotty also called Trump’s remarks a “display of immaturity and short-sightedness,” and his use of the name Pocahontas to refer to a political adversary as “antics.”
Other Native American groups and individuals agreed that Trump intentionally uses “Pocahontas” as a slur.
“I think [the comment] revealed his deep racism toward Native people,” said Andrew Curley, with the Bordertown [AZ] Justice Coalition. “I grew up being insulted by white people who threw around terms like ‘Pocahontas’ and ‘Trail of Tears’ to make fun of you,” he said.
“It’s very frustrating that Donald Trump does not see Native people through any other lens other than stereotypes,” said Amanda Blackhorse, a Navajo social worker and Native-issues advocate.
To put this latest racial slur against Native Americans in context, it should be noted that Trump has a long history of bad behavior regarding Native Americans.
Donald Trump claimed that Indian reservations had fallen under mob control. He secretly paid for more than $1 million in ads that portrayed members of a tribe in Upstate New York as cocaine traffickers and career criminals. And he suggested in testimony and in media appearances that dark-skinned Native Americans in Connecticut were faking their ancestry.
“I think I might have more Indian blood than a lot of the so-called Indians that are trying to open up the reservations,” Trump said during a 1993 radio interview with shock jock Don Imus.
Trump’s harsh rhetoric on Native Americans was part of his aggressive war on the expanding Native American casino industry during the 1990s, which posed a threat to his gambling empire. The racially tinged remarks and broad-brush characterizations that Trump employed against Indian tribes for over a decade provided an early glimpse of the kind of incendiary language that he would use about racial and ethnic groups in the 2016 presidential campaign.
It’s very frustrating, too, that Donald Trump continues to get away with these kinds of behaviors, does not feel a need to apologize or to educate himself, feels empowered to say whatever he wants whenever he wants to, and continues to have the support of a scary base of voters and the leadership of the Republican party.