Donald Trump’s words have stirred a debate among Native Americans about how they should deal with him.
Donald Trump is heading west this weekend for rallies in Las Vegas and Phoenix and a fundraiser at Barry Goldwater’s old estate, known as Be-nun-i-kin, Navajo for “house on top of the hill.”
But it was the prospect of Trump’s gathering with members of the Navajo Nation that was creating the most intrigue regarding the trip of the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
Navajo leaders had extended an invitation to Trump, as they have to other candidates, to meet with them, despite objections from a number of members over his repeated use of the name “Pocahontas” to deride Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. On Friday, Navajo officials said the meeting was not going to happen during Trump’s trip.
Nevertheless, Trump’s words have stirred a debate among Native Americans about how they should deal with him.
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For many, his mention of the historical figure is offensive and a sign that Trump, who has been accused of being anti-immigrant, also has problems with the people who first inhabited the country.
This year, the nickname has become Trump’s favorite pejorative for punching back at Warren, a progressive Democrat who is one of his most vocal critics. In 2012, the former Harvard Law School professor came under fire when it emerged that during her academic career she identified herself as a minority, citing Native American roots.
“She’s got about as much Indian blood as I have,” Trump said in March. “Her whole life was based on a fraud.”
In rallies, at news conferences and on Twitter, Trump has repeatedly called Warren “Pocahontas” and “goofy.” Last month, when an indigenous Canadian journalist told him that his use of the name was rude, Trump kept repeating it. At some of his campaign events, Trump’s supporters chant Indian war cries.
Native Americans have taken notice.
“I think he definitely says it as a slur,” said Jacqueline Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians. “No matter how he feels about Elizabeth Warren, to throw that out there is disrespectful to real Native Americans.”
Pata noted that the portrayal of Pocahontas in Disney movies is a caricature, and that the real Pocahontas has a deep and even painful legacy for Native American tribes such as the Powhatan in Virginia. In Powhatan lore, Pocahontas gained hero status for saving the life of a white man and was later kidnapped by the English; after being held hostage and forced to marry, she died in 1617 in England at the age of 21.
“It’s tragic way that she died away from her people and of a disease that was brought by the Europeans,” said Debra Haaland, chairwoman of the New Mexico Democratic Party and a member of the Laguna Pueblo, who takes offense at Trump’s use of the name. “It discredits her memory,” she said.
For Haaland, using“Pocahontas” is like calling Native Americans “Redskins,” and it suggests Trump thinks that all tribes are the same.
“It’s as if any person who identifies as native, ‘We’ll just call them Pocahontas,’” Haaland said.
Some Native Americans have felt the wrath of Trump before. As a casino mogul in the 1990s, Trump sued the federal government, arguing that allowing tribes to open casinos discriminated against him.
“This guy is unbelievable,” George Schneider, a lawyer who represented 2,000 Ramapoughs in northern New Jersey and New York, said at the time. “His father hands him a multimillion-dollar empire. The Native American Indians are lucky if they can give their children food, clothing and a roof over their head.”
As he has done with Warren, Trump also questioned whether the casino operators benefiting from their Native American status were pure-blooded.
“They don’t look like Indians to me,” Trump said at a congressional hearing in 1993.
Despite this history, the leaders of the Navajo Nation, who represent about 250,000 tribal members across 27,000 square miles in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, reached out to Trump in hopes of meeting him during his visit to Arizona.
But on Friday afternoon Jared Touchin, a spokesman for the Navajo Nation, said the meeting would not take place because of “prior obligations” of the Navajo Nation leadership.
Touchin acknowledged that some tribal members were not interested in having their leaders meet with Trump after his recent remarks. But he said that many members thought it would be valuable to talk to him about education, water rights, tribal sovereignty and coal. The Navajo Nation relies heavily on the struggling coal industry for revenue, and reviving it could be an area of potential partnership with Trump, who has vowed to put miners back to work.
Carlyle Begay, a Republican state senator who lives on the Navajo Reservation, said he hoped to meet Trump so he could help educate him about how to more appropriately talk about Native American issues.
“The term that he used should be changed,” Begay said. “He should use a different rhetoric, and this is an opportunity to help him understand that.”
Not all Navajos are turned off by Trump.
Shawn Redd, a Navajo Republican who is running for Congress in Arizona, suggested that his fellow Native Americans were being too politically correct and that Warren deserved to be ridiculed for calling herself a minority.
“I think Donald Trump is within his full rights to make fun of her for it,” Redd said. “It is a scandal.”