Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma). Photo: National Congress of American Indians
National | Politics

GOP lawmakers side with Indian Country amid President Trump's 'Pocahontas' controversy

Key Republican lawmakers are siding with Indian Country as controversy over President Donald Trump and his "Pocahontas" comment continues to generate headlines.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), one of just two tribal citizens in Congress, broke his silence on Tuesday after attending the White House ceremony where Trump revived his slur in front of three elderly Navajo war heroes. Though the Chickasaw Nation citizen acknowledged the president's outreach to the Code Talkers was historic, he said the use of the term was "insensitive and unnecessary."

“As a member of the Chickasaw Nation and an advocate for tribal sovereignty and rights, I was honored to attend yesterday’s White House event recognizing the historic and brave Native American Code Talkers,” Cole said in a statement after Indianz.Com inquired about his presence at the event on Monday. “They were integral parts in the fight to preserve the freedoms we have today. President Trump is the first president to recognize the Native American Code Talkers in the Oval Office, and I commend him for such a gracious and thoughtful act.”

“However, I found yesterday’s referral to Senator Elizabeth Warren as 'Pocahontas' insensitive and unnecessary during an event honoring the contributions that Native Americans have made to our nation," Cole continued. "This sort of language offends a much larger group of people and should be avoided."

The statement came after Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), himself a war hero, weighed in. The former two-term chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs criticized the injection of "Pocahontas" -- used by Trump to taunt one of his political rivals -- into an event featuring Navajo veterans, many of whom came from his state.

"Our nation owes a debt of gratitude to the Navajo Code Talkers, whose bravery, skill & tenacity helped secure our decisive victory over tyranny & oppression during WWII. Politicizing these genuine American heroes is an insult to their sacrifice," McCain, who has frequently clashed with the president on a variety of issues, wrote on Twitter.

The Republican support contributed to continued mainstream media coverage of Trump's gaffe. Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye made the rounds on news networks on Tuesday morning, ensuring the controversy stayed on television and social media screens for another day.

Begaye reiterated his disagreement with Trump's repeated use of a Native woman's name for political gain. Pocahontas was the daughter of powerful Powhatan Confederacy leader whose dealings with some of the first European arrivals in the early 1600s played a critical role in the settling of the United States.

“Pocahontas is a real person," Begaye said on CNN's New Day program. "It’s not a caricature. It’s not something that’s just made up. This is a person, a young lady and Native American woman, that played a critical role in the life of this nation. And to use that person in that way is unnecessary and being culturally insensitive.”

On MSNBC, Begaye said Trump shouldn't have insulted Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) during an event that was supposed to honor his people's warriors.

'This is where we’re honoring and respecting our veterans, especially our Code Talkers," Begaye told MSNBC's Ali Velshi and Stephanie Ruhle. "To put in a slur that has become racial -- Pocahontas -- didn’t belong there. It was inappropriate. It was not a time to do it. It was not the place to do it.”

Tribal leaders also continued to criticize Trump for marring what they said could have been a powerful way to close out Native American Heritage Month. Kirk Francis, the president of the United South and Eastern Tribes and the chief of the Penobscot Nation, said the "Pocahontas" remark stood in complete contrast to the proclamation Trump issued less than a month ago.

"It is nothing less than a slap in the face, then, to watch you perpetuate this disparagement at an event meant to 'honor' us," Francis wrote in an opinion published on Indianz.Com.

MSNBC: Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye on Trump's 'Pocahontas' Comment

Amber Kanazbah Crotty, a delegate to the Navajo Nation Council, her tribe's legislative body, was angry with Trump's use of "Pocahontas" but also with the way the White House's press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, brushed off any criticism as "ridiculous."

"The reckless appropriation of this term is deeply offensive and dangerous to the sovereignty and identity of our peoples," Crotty said in a statement. "Such rhetoric is damaging, and it a serious infringement of our right to live as Native Americans."

Other prominent voices expressed similar concerns. Mark Charles, a Navajo citizen who frequently writes about historical mistreatment of Native peoples, said Trump lacked respect for his tribe's war heroes.

"President Trump’s words and actions clearly demonstrated that he does not honor the immense sacrifice and incredible service of the Navajo Code Talkers," Charles wrote in an opinion published on Indianz.Com.

Doug George-Kanentiio, an influential Mohawk journalist, noted that the event took place under the gaze of a portrait of Andrew Jackson, the president widely reviled for forcing tribes out of their homelands in the 1800s.

"He belittled the Navajo when he elected to have Jackson's image looming over the day's ceremony," George-Kanentiio wrote on Indianz.Com.

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

The event with the three Code Talkers -- Peter MacDonald, 90, who led the Navajo Nation for four terms in the 1970s and the 1980s; Fleming Begaye, Sr., 97, who served as the honorary co-chair of Trump's Native American Coalition during the campaign; and Thomas H. Begay, 91 -- was only Trump's second public event with an Indian Country focus. In June, he invited a group of tribal leaders to a meeting of state and local officials to discuss energy issues -- LoRenzo Bates, the Speaker of the Navajo Nation Council was among those who attended.

Beyond that, Trump has taken actions that have consistently gone against tribal interests. He pushed for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, a law that has helped the Indian Health Service deal with chronic underfunding, he boasted about his approvals of two controversial pipelines widely opposed in Indian Country and he attempted to cut funding for key Indian education, housing and other programs.

"Has he done anything good for Indians?" asked Deb Haaland, a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna and a Democrat who is hoping to be the first Native woman elected to Congress. "No."

"And if he had, it would have been outweighed by the horrible things he has done," said Haaland, who otherwise told Indianz.Com she stands ready to work with Republicans and advance tribal interests if she is able to represent New Mexico's First Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Related Stories:
Mark Charles: The honor of the Navajo Code Talkers and the shame of a president (November 28, 2017)
Doug George-Kanentiio: Trump is living up to his Mohawk title of 'town destroyer' (November 28, 2017)
Amber Kanazbah Crotty: Trump's careless comment damages indigenous peoples (November 28, 2017)
Kirk Francis to President Trump: 'You can choose to do better. You must do better' (November 28, 2017)
Mark Trahant: Mainstream media comes up short as 'Pocahontas' story goes viral (November 28, 2017)
Cronkite News: President Trump overshadows Code Talkers with 'Pocahontas' jab (November 28, 2017)
President Trump stuns Indian Country with 'Pocahontas' slur in front of war heroes (November 27, 2017)