Simon Moya-Smith: Donald Trump's recent faux pas with Navajo code talkers is not an isolated incident
Like Columbus Day NFL fans in redface, Trump reinforces the marginalization of Native Americans, Moya-Smith writes
Editor’s Note: Simon Moya-Smith is a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation and a journalist. He is the author of the forthcoming book “Your Spirit Animal is a Jackass,” published by the University of Minnesota Press. Follow him on Twitter @Simonmoyasmith. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
There are things in this world a president should never do, and those include standing before a portrait of a white man who signed the Indian Removal Act into law during an event ostensibly honoring Native Americans, and then verbally whipping a politician by calling her “Pocahontas.”
On Monday, President Trump hosted three Navajo Code Talkers at the White House, troops who used a secret, unbreakable code language to send vital information during World War II. The afternoon should have remained focused on the veterans, their sacrifice and bravery, but it instead became yet another quintessentially nasty Trump moment when, amid some rambling commemorative speech, he went off script and threw an elbow at Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
“I just want to thank you because you are very, very special people. You were here long before any of us were here,” Trump said. “Although, we have a representative in Congress who has been here a long time … longer than you – they call her Pocahontas!”
It pains me to have to once again remind folks that Pocahontas was a child who married a white man to protect her family from the viciousness of white settlers (some say invaders) who aggressively desired gold and land and women and souls to convert to Christianity – this list goes on.
And here’s another thing: Even if Trump hadn’t used Native Americans as fodder to attack Warren, if he hadn’t used the name of Pocahontas as a slur, the day still would’ve been a hostile display of arrogance and ignorance.
It’s been a rough autumn already, but it’s always rough for Native Americans in the fall.
We’ve got to deal with wild Washington NFL team fans in redface and headdresses. We’ve got to deal with Columbus Day celebrations.
People playing Indian on Halloween. There’s the holiday that omits the murder and mutilation of Native Americans (Thanksgiving, which we call The National Day of Mourning).
And then there’s Trump.
In a video of the occasion, you can see him standing just below a painting of President Andrew Jackson, the architect of the Trail of Tears, when 17,000 Native Americans were forced to march from their ancestral homeland in Georgia through freezing temperatures and snow all the way to Oklahoma during the 1830s.
Tara Houska, an Ojibwe attorney, told me she felt Trump had used the event honoring Native American men to demean Native American women with lack of awareness about Jackson and his jab at Warren.
“Greeting indigenous Code Talkers in front of that portrait, knowing Andrew Jackson is responsible for the Trail of Tears, is disrespectful – it’s worse than that. It’s appallingly out of touch,” she said.
“This isn’t the first time he’s attempted to slur Elizabeth Warren by calling her Pocahontas, who was a real person, and he diminished an entire demographic of native women to a single figure in history who’s been largely fetishized and whose traumatic story has been whitewashed by the American narrative,” Houska added.
But I still wonder if Trump, who stood beneath the portrait of an Indian killer, made a faux pas prompted by naiveté. Or was this intentional? I wouldn’t put it past him.
The President has a long record of attacking Native Americans. In 1993 while speaking to a House subcommittee, Trump said, “They don’t look like Indians to me” in reference to Native Americans in Connecticut, rivals in the casino business. He even suggested the Native Americans there were in collusion with the Mafia.
He pushed through the Dakota Access Pipeline, which violates the Native American land and threatens indigenous lives and water. And while that pipeline was already leaking like a garden hose with bullet holes, he resurrected the Keystone XL Pipeline, which again is in direct violation of our sovereign treaty rights. That pipeline, too, has also gushed, seriously impacting Indian country.
But what does he care? He doesn’t. That’s the point. No, he doesn’t care about Native Americans. Not me. Not you – unless you’re a billionaire reading this screed, in which case he probably cares a lot about you.
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Nothing this man does or says surprises me at this point, but what’s truly disappointing, and also frightening, is that he sets the example for Americans and the world over regarding how to talk about and treat indigenous peoples.
Meanwhile, we remain one of the most marginalized racial minorities in the United States, with a sitting US president perpetuating that situation even further.
Trump is no Andrew Jackson, but one thing they do have in common is a complete lack of respect for Native Americans. That is incontrovertible. And there’s no sign Trump will cease his anti-Native American tantrums anytime soon.