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Trump's 'Pocahontas' insult makes a mockery of Native Americans' diverse history

Trump had the opportunity to show respect to a group of brave Americans, and he squandered it.
Image: President Trump Honors Native American Code Talkers At White House
A picture is worth a thousand words.Oliver Contreras-Pool / Getty Images

On Monday, President Donald Trump held a White House event, ostensibly honoring the Code Talkers. The Code Talkers have been honored by many American politicians in the last two decades, most notably with the presentation of Congressional Gold Medals to surviving soldiers and their families by member of the U.S. Congress in 2013. My tribe, the Ho-Chunk Nation, sent a delegation including our President, Vice President and Traditional Chief, and I was proud to watch that presentation online, and to see the Code Talkers and their families. President Bush also previously honored the Navajo Code Talkers in 2001; President Obama greeted several after his 2012 speech to the Tribal Nations Conference.

After all, Native communities have a strong appreciation for veterans and their service, and Native Americans serve in the military at the highest rate of any ethnic group in the United States. The contributions of the Code Talkers were particularly important during World War II but remained hidden for decades, as the program — which utilized tribal languages instead of developed codes to allow troops to conduct secure communications — remained classified until 1968. Many non-Native Americans don't even know that citizens of 33 Native Nations (not just the Navajo) served as Code Talkers, each using their traditional language to safely and securely transmit vital information to protect American and Allied lives.

So one might think that an event in the White House to further honor our elders would be respectful and thoughtful. Unfortunately, as is all too common these days, that’s not how it went down: Trump disrespected the very veterans he was supposed to be honoring in the Oval Office, and reduced the over 500 tribes in the United States to a caricature.

Trump disrespected the very veterans he was supposed to be honoring, and reduced over 500 tribes to a caricature.

For one, after his inauguration, Trump hung a portrait of the architect of the Indian Removal Act, Andrew Jackson, in the Oval Office. Jackson's legislation resulted in the removal of thousands of Native people from their homelands, including the removal of the Cherokee. This event, which became known as the Trail of Tears, resulted in 17,000 people being forcibly displaced and more than 5,000 dead. The portrait of the architect of this despicable period of American history hung directly behind the podium at which Trump and the Code Talkers stood on Monday, painfully visible to the cameras.

And that insult came before the program even began.

During the actual program, Peter MacDonald — one of the Code Talkers — spoke about enlisting at 15 years old and being deployed to Guam and Northern China. He also told stories of his fellow veterans, Fleming Begaye (who survived multiple battles and spent a year recovering at a naval hospital) and Thomas Begay (who was on Iwo Jima and later enlisted in the Army to serve in the Korean War).

These stories mean something: They are a mark of the courage and strength of these men, as well as all the other Code Talkers, and are an important part of America’s history.

In contrast, Trump’s remarks contained little specific information about either the men he had chosen to honor, the courageousness of the Code Talkers, or the history of our people. In fact, he boiled the entire history of the indigenous people of the United States down to “(y)ou were here long before any of us were here.” He then referred to Senator Elizabeth Warren as "Pocahontas," a reference to her claims, based on family stories and genealogical research, that she had an ancestor of Native descent in the late 19th century. (The veracity of her family's stories became an issue in her 2012 Senate campaign against then-Senator Scott Brown, and has been repeatedly stoked by President Trump and Brown. In 2016, Brown called for her to take and release the results of a DNA test.)

While Pocahontas’s name is not a racial slur in and of itself, the use of her name to describe one of his political enemies is certainly meant to be an insult in his own easy-to-decrypt coded language. It makes as much logical sense as calling members of the French Resistance during World War II "Ludwig van Beethoven," who was neither French nor alive at the time.

While Pocahontas’s name is not a slur in and of itself, the use of her name to describe one of his political enemies is an insult.

Warren has said that her ancestors were from the Cherokee and Delaware nations, and Pocahontas (whose real name was Matoaka and who, contrary to popular mythology, was actually kidnapped by English settlers and forced into marriage with one of them as a condition of her release) was Algonquian. The deliberate mashing together of various Native American nations into a single fake culture represented by one widely misrepresented historical figure is highly insulting to the historic achievements of the men with whom Trump shared a podium.

In other words, calling Warren "Pocahontas" isn't just an insult to her: It's an insult to the memory of Matoaka, the Algonquian, Delaware and Cherokee peoples and to Native Americans as a whole. This is not a single group with a single history (other than the shared history of oppression, death and misrepresentation at the hands of white colonialists and the American government).

Probably the most telling moment in terms of Trump's absolute ignorance of the contributions of the men he was supposedly honoring was when he referenced a conversation with his Chief of Staff: “I said, 'How good were these Code Talkers? What was it?,'" recounted Trump during his speech. "He said, 'Sir, you have no idea. You have no idea how great they were, what they've done for this country, and the strength and the bravery and the love that they had for the country and that you have for the country.'” A truer statement has never been made in the White House. Trump really had no idea.

Trump had the opportunity to show respect to a group of brave Americans by bearing witness to their stories, and he squandered it. Instead of preparing something meaningful to say to these American heroes, he chose to reveal his own ignorance in conversational banter. He could have acknowledged the place of importance that these men hold in their home communities, and how they continue to be role models to so many. He could've acknowledged the sacrifices they made despite the terrible crimes the United States has inflicted on so many Native people living within its borders. He could have, at the very least, acknowledged the Code Talkers' accomplishments somewhere other than in front of the portrait of the architect of so much mass death and displacement for indigenous people.

But he didn't, because he had no idea how great they were. And he has no idea how great they are, let alone who they — and we — are.

Arvina Martin is an enrolled member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, and is Stockbridge-Munsee. She lives in Madison, Wisc. with her daughter and was elected to the Madison Common Council in 2017.