It is difficult to keep up with the sheer quantity of daily news generated by the new administration, but I wrote the following piece after Donald Trump, once again, referred to his principal critic, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, as Pocahontas. The day after this news broke, I asked my students what they thought of it. These are bright kids, engaged, and they believed quite strongly that Trump’s behavior was inappropriate, and juvenile. Many of them volunteered that this sort of name-calling was racist. When I asked them why, however, I felt that they struggled to provide an answer. They knew it was wrong, but had difficulty pin-pointing why. This essay summarizes my explanation.
While Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s claims to Native American identity certainly can be called into question, President Trump’s choice to deride her as “Pocahontas,” during the campaign and in a meeting with Democratic lawmakers, goes too far. Warren said she learned of her Cherokee ancestry through “family stories,” but she has not produced any evidence. Still, Al Franken, Warren’s colleague in the Senate and a member of the Indian Affairs Committee, called Trump’s actions racist. He’s right. Here’s why.
Trump’s recent name-calling is of a piece with his testimony before Congress in 1993, when he cast aspersions on the Connecticut tribes who then were opening up casinos that could compete with his own. “They don’t look like Indians to me,” Trump said.
For President Trump, it seems, Native American identity can be determined by a quick glance. He looked for certain characteristics and did not see them in the Pequots, or in Senator Warren. Centuries of intermarriage, enslavement, and the complex, messy, and tangled history of native peoples mattered in his determination not a bit. For him, native peoples were individuals with certain easily distinguished racial features, and not members of political entities that possessed an inherent but limited sovereignty that predated the creation of the United States.
But here’s the thing. Too many Americans share Trump’s views about who Indians are and what they ought to be. Too many Americans view Indians as part of the past. Think about the most commonly held stereotypes about Native Americans: What images enter your mind? Ask your friends what they think. Chances are a lot of those images come from the past.
And when we speak of Native Americans as being part of the past, we are aiding in an ongoing colonial project which erases native peoples in the present. And if they are viewed as part of the past, or inauthentic, it becomes easier to dismiss the legitimacy of Native Americans, as individuals and as members of semi-sovereign nations, as being out of time and place and, as a consequence, irrelevant. It becomes easier to ignore the very real problems of inequality and injustice in Indian Country; it becomes permissible to cheer for a football team with a racist name; or to silently assent to a President’s decision to authorize a pipeline through lands that a Native American community deems sacred. It also makes it possible to call into question the sovereign right of native nations to develop their economies, protect their lands, and against immense odds preserve their cultures. When the President casts Indians as part of the past, he makes it more difficult for many Americans to recognize the importance of native peoples’ calls for justice today.