WASHINGTON ― Over the weekend, the president of the United States appeared to make a punchline out of Native American genocide to score political points. You might have missed it because hardly any of the nation’s top leaders called him out on it.
“Today Elizabeth Warren, sometimes referred to by me as Pocahontas, joined the race for President,” President Donald Trump tweeted Saturday. “Will she run as our first Native American presidential candidate, or has she decided that after 32 years, this is not playing so well anymore? See you on the campaign TRAIL, Liz!”
It’s hard to overstate the apparent offensiveness of the president’s words. Trump’s use of “TRAIL” in all-caps evokes the Trail of Tears, the forced removal of Native Americans from their homeland in the southeastern United States, which led to thousands of deaths from disease, starvation and exposure. His constant mockery of Warren as “Pocahontas,” meanwhile, demeans a historic Native woman.
“I’m a Cherokee woman. I have ancestors who were on the trail. And I was ― at this point, I shouldn’t be shocked by anything that President Trump says or does ― I was honestly shocked,” said Candessa Tehee, an assistant professor of American Indian Studies at Northeastern State University. “That he’s willing to so casually invoke the darkest chapter of American history to take a cheap shot at a rival, I was flabbergasted.”
A White House spokesman did not respond to a request for clarification on what Trump was getting at with this remark.
But the paradox of Trump is that he is so casually racist against Native Americans, and yet, his slurs go largely unchallenged by both Democratic and Republican leaders ― even as Native groups denounce him.
This time, some Republicans even tacitly endorsed Trump’s mockery: Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), who chairs the House GOP Conference, shrugged off his tweet when asked about it Sunday and tried to refocus on Warren. On the same day as the president’s tweet, the Republican Party sent out a press release titled “Fauxcahontas’ Failure To Launch.” Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., piled on Trump’s remark with his own slur.
“We see our elected officials speaking out vehemently against racism regularly, yet very few have condemned Trump’s racist rants against Natives,” said Raina Thiele, a former White House liaison for tribes under President Barack Obama and currently a consultant on tribal policy. “I believe this silence is rooted in the continued invisibility of Native people and the lack of political will by politicians. Some don’t think they have to speak out, so they don’t.”
None of the 2020 Democratic presidential contenders appeared to directly condemn Trump’s apparent Trail of Tears reference. None of the top four House and Senate Democratic and Republican leaders pushed back on it, either. The only one of those four who responded to a request for comment was Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who said, “If he issues a comment on the President’s tweet I will send it your way.”
“We see our elected officials speaking out vehemently against racism regularly, yet very few have condemned Trump’s racist rants against Natives.”
One House leader did speak up. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), chair of the Democratic Caucus, questioned when any Republicans will ever denounce Trump.
“Trail of tears massacre is part of Native American genocide perpetrated against millions of indigenous people,” Jeffries tweeted Monday. “Mocking this shameful episode is a hateful trope.”
Trump has demeaned Native people throughout his presidency. Last month, he made light of the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Wounded Knee Massacre, a horrifying chapter of U.S. history in which U.S. Army troops killed hundreds of Native people, many of them women and children. In November 2017, Trump repeated his Pocahontas jab at Warren during an event honoring Native veterans, where he stood in front of a portrait of Andrew Jackson, the former U.S. president and slave owner who signed the Indian Removal Act that led to the Trail of Tears.
Elected leaders may be understandably reluctant to wade into Trump’s criticisms of Warren, and it would be essentially impossible to respond to every offensive tweet the president fires off. But if they’re not willing to tease apart the difference between Trump attacking Warren versus his slurs and mockery of Native people and culture, it means the president gets away with normalizing racist language in the name of a joke or a campaign attack.
And in the meantime, it’s not the Massachusetts senator bearing the brunt of those attacks. It’s indigenous people, over and over again.
People in positions of power have a responsibility to call out Trump every time he dehumanizes Native people, said Mary Kathryn Nagle, an attorney and Cherokee Nation citizen. She noted the contrast between the recent widespread condemnation of Virginia elected officials for wearing blackface and the relative silence in response to Trump’s apparent mocking of the Trail of Tears.
“The effect of that silence is incredibly traumatic, especially for our kids, because when they see that, OK, everyone is upset about blackface but no one is upset that apparently the genocide of my people is a joke? What does that mean about me and my worth as a human being?” Nagle said.
The president’s attacks on Native people have the equally distressing effect of erasing the stories of real people, she added. Trump is using indigenous people “as characters, as almost cartoons in a political feud,” she said, and that “gives the American public the implicit permission to do that to the actual Native people living here.”
Nagle’s take echoes the findings of a groundbreaking, multi-year study conducted by Native researchers that surveyed how the American public views indigenous people. They found that the vast majority of Americans learn about Native people only through pop culture and media, where Native Americans are barely represented — and when they are, it is typically in the context of racist team mascots for sports teams or stereotypes. Just 13 percent of state history curriculum standards about indigenous people cover events past the year 1900, which means most Americans have no concept of contemporary Native American people.
The fact that Americans are taught a distorted version of history early on ― one that glosses over the atrocities the U.S. committed against indigenous people ― makes it easier for them not to feel guilty about the country’s history of mass genocide and to keep Native people in the margins, said Dr. Arianne Eason, one of the project’s researchers.
“Until we start unpacking that, we can live in this space where omission feels OK. It assuages our guilt,” Eason said. “We don’t have to feel bad about what’s happening and contend with a group of people saying literally in our faces, ‘We are still here.’”
“That he’s willing to so casually invoke the darkest chapter of American history to take a cheap shot at a rival, I was flabbergasted.”
Adrienne Keene, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and assistant professor of American studies and ethnic studies at Brown University, tweeted that every time she hears “Pocahontas” or “Lie-awatha” or “chief” jokes, it’s a reminder of how close to the surface and accessible these stereotypes are.
“These ‘jokes’ show me that most Americans don’t think of Native folks as your neighbors, your professors, your friends, or your fellow citizens,” she said.
Trump has given no indication that he’s listening to Native communities or their concerns when he goes after Warren. To the contrary, he treats “Pocahontas” ― a name he has called Warren at least 18 times on Twitter alone ― as a clever insult.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has tried to defend Trump for invoking Pocahontas’ name when attacking Warren by arguing that her name is not a racial slur.
But Pocahontas was a real Powhatan woman “whose life was cut short in a terrible way,” as Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) has put it. “When I think of that story — and the hundreds of sad and disturbing stories of how Native people have suffered throughout history, I can’t imagine making a mockery of their names or their lives,” she wrote.
It may seem futile to try to stop Trump’s racist comments about Native people or any other group. But the way people in positions of power respond to him when he does ― or when they don’t respond at all ― arguably matters more.
Trump may never get the message that Native Americans aren’t a mascot or political joke, Nagle said, but hopefully, the next generation will learn “that what Trump is doing is wrong, and they shouldn’t do this.”
This article has been updated with Trump’s comment from Friday.