President Donald Trump with Navajo Code Talkers at the White House on November 27, 2017. Still image: White House
National | Politics

President Trump stuns Indian Country with 'Pocahontas' slur in front of Navajo war heroes



With additional reporting by Kevin Abourezk.

President Donald Trump sparked widespread outrage in Indian Country after marring an event featuring Navajo war heroes with a derogatory slur.

The event at the White House was designed to honor citizens of the Navajo Nation for their military service. Coming at the close of Native American Heritage Month, Trump had the opportunity to promote both the armed forces and the Code Talkers, an often forgotten group of soldiers who used their language to help the United States achieve victory in World War II.

Instead, Trump overshadowed their contributions by reviving the derogatory term, tribal leaders, tribal citizens and members of Congress said. After declining to deliver his prepared remarks, he lashed out at Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), one of his political rivals.

"They call her 'Pocahontas,'" Trump said with a smirk as he stood in front of a portrait of Andrew Jackson, the president widely reviled for forcing tribes out of their homelands in the 1800s.

The revival of the slur -- one Trump frequently used during the presidential campaign last year -- quickly drew rebukes. Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye, who was at the ceremony, attempted to direct attention back to his people's warriors but the damage was already done.

“In this day and age, all tribal nations still battle insensitive references to our people. The prejudice that Native American people face is an unfortunate historical legacy,” Begaye said in a statement following the event.

Indianz.Com on Twitter: ‘They call her Pocahontas’

Jonathan Nez, the tribe's vice president, was even more harsh. He believes the Code Talkers, whose ranks are dwindling as they age, will be overlooked due to the intense focus on anything Trump says or does.

“President Trump's statement today was disrespectful and rude. Worst of all, his theatrics overshadowed an otherwise special occasion for our Navajo Code Talkers," Nez told Indianz.Com. "Our Navajo Code Talkers fought for courage and honor and that same respect should’ve been given to them today. Instead, today will be remembered for entirely different reasons.”

Jefferson Keel, the newly elected president of the National Congress of American Indians, raised similar concerns. Besides "overshadowing" the importance of the Code Talkers, he said Trump's continued use of Pocahontas as a "slur" ignores the contributions of a Native woman who was known for bringing people together.

“Once again, we call upon the President to refrain from using her name in a way that denigrates her legacy,” Keel, who served in Vietnam, said in a statement.

Deb Haaland, a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna and a Democrat who is hoping to be the first Native woman elected to Congress, called Trump's repeated use of the term "indefensible." She said it reflects a larger problem of an administration that has delivered few concrete gains for Indian Country since the president took office in January.

"That's telling of him and his administration that they are not working in any way to build relationships with Indian tribes," Haaland told Indianz.Com.

"If I had a chance to speak to him personally, I would ask him what tribe is Pocahontas from," she continued. "And he would likely not be able to answer that."

"He seemingly lumps us all together in one pot and has no clue about our history, our differences, the various issues that we all have," Haaland said. Her campaign website now features a prominent call to action to Trump: "Stop disrespecting Native Americans!"

Indianz.Com on YouTube: President Donald Trump and Navajo Code Talkers

Amid the negative reactions from Indian Country, the White House quickly defended Trump's use of the term. During a news briefing following the ceremony, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said "Pocahontas" wasn't a racial slur and wasn't derogatory.

"I think what most people find offensive is Senator Warren lying about her heritage to advance her career," Sanders said, in reference to Warren's claims of Cherokee ancestry.

Berinda Deluca-Rininger, a veteran from the Navajo Nation who worked for Trump when she lived in New York City, also backed the president. She said Warren's lack of documentation of her heritage -- not racial animus -- was the motivation for the "Pocahontas" slur.

“All I can say is that as a Native woman, as a Marine veteran, he’s never disrespected me in any way," Deluca-Rininger, who joined Trump's organization after serving in the military, said of her former boss. "He's never called me Pocahontas.”

"He values the contributions that our Code Talkers made for our country," she said after watching the White House ceremony online.

Deluca-Rininger, who now lives in Arizona, isn't offended by the use of "Pocahontas" either because she said the jab is about Warren's questionable heritage. "If she were truly Native American, I honestly don't feel that he would be saying that to her," she said.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: President Donald Trump and Navajo Code Talkers

Lenny Foster, another Navajo citizen, wasn't as forgiving. He said his father, Harold Y. Foster, who served as a Navajo Code Talker with the Fifth Marine Division in the Pacific, including at Iwo Jima, would have been disgusted by Trump’s use of the term in front of his fellow soldiers.

“He survived many battles and I know that he would not appreciate the racial slurs and profanity used in their presence,” said Foster, a board member of the International Indian Treaty Council. “I believe he’s using the Code Talkers for his own political purpose.”

His father never spoke about his war experience, and his family only learned of the strategic importance of Harold Foster’s wartime contribution in the late 1970s when the federal government de-classified information about the Code Talkers.

Harold Foster died in 1995, before the Navajo Code Talkers got the level of acclaim they have since received, including as the subject of the 2002 film “Windtalkers.”

“The Code Talkers are heroes for all of us throughout Indian Country,” Lenny Foster said. “It’s very disheartening to hear Trump making profanity, racial slurs in the presence of revered elders who are remaining members of the Navajo Nation Code talkers.”

The Navajo Code Talker Memorial in Window Rock, Arizona. Photo: Ron Cogswell

Key lawmakers also said Trump crossed the line during an event that should have highlighted the achievements of the Code Talkers, who were awarded Congressional gold and silver medals for their service.

"Donald Trump’s racist joke – during Native American Heritage Month no less – demeaned the contributions that the Code Talkers and countless other Native American patriots and citizens have made to our great country," Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said in a statement.

"Trump's Pocahontas remark in front of Navajo code talkers is offensive and shows his complete ignorance for Native American history during Native American Heritage Month. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Arizona), the top Democrat on the House Committee on Natural Resources, added in a post on Twitter.

But one significant voice was absent as the controversy continued to generate news coverage into the evening. Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), whose Chickasaw Nation ancestors were among those forced to leave their homes during Andrew Jackson's reign, had yet to respond to a request for comment placed earlier in the day.

Cole, who is one of just two enrolled tribal citizens in Congress, was at the White House. ceremony and was singled out by the president at the beginning of the event. He previously called on Trump to stop using the "Pocahontas" insult.

“He needs to quit using language like that,” Cole told The Washington Post during the presidential campaign last year. “It’s pejorative , and you know, there’s plenty of things that he can disagree with Elizabeth Warren over, this is not something that should, in my opinion, ever enter the conversation."

Warren, for her part, brushed off the attack during an appearance on MSNBC. Growing up in Oklahoma, she has claimed Cherokee ancestry, though she has declined to provide details of her family's background.

"It is deeply unfortunate that the President of the United States cannot even make it though a ceremony honoring these heroes without having to throw out a racial slur," Warren told MSNBC’s Ali Velshi. She later sent out fundraising email, accusing Trump of trying to "bully" her, POLITICO reporter Gabriel Debenedetti wrote on Twitter.

The three elderly Code Talkers who attended the event included Peter MacDonald, who led the Navajo Nation for four terms in the 1970s and the 1980s before serving time in federal prison on corruption charges. His impromptu remarks about the dedication of his fellow soldiers prompted Trump to scrap his own speech at the ceremony.

"The enemy was breaking every military code that was used in the Pacific," MacDonald said. That's when the U.S. Marine Corps brought in 29 Navajo soldiers to develop a system, based on their language, that proved to be unbreakable.

More than 300 Navajo soldiers followed in the wake of the original group and were trained in the successful system. "In every battle," MacDonald said, "Code Talkers were used."

MacDonald was joined at the event by Fleming Begaye, Sr., 97, who served as the honorary co-chair of Trump's Native American Coalition during the campaign.

"I know that," Trump said when MacDonald reminded him of the connection.

MacDonald, who is approaching 90, spoke approvingly of Trump during the Native Nations Inaugural Ball on January 20, the day the new president took office. He repeated that praise on Monday.

"You have all top Marine Corps generals as your assistants here, so we know that we are in good hands," MacDonald said to laughter and applause. John Kelly, Trump's chief of staff, who offered brief remarks about the importance of the Code Talkers at the event, served in the Marines.

Thomas H. Begay, 91, also attended the ceremony.