In not-so-distant past, if a top politician referred to someone in a racially-offensive way, that politician could be expected to receive sharp rebukes from both sides of the aisle, and he or she would be expected to apologize. Not so for President Donald Trump, who has made it a habit of calling Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) Pocahontas throughout both his campaign for the president and even now that he holds the highest office in the land.
Pocahontas is the famous, long-romanticized Native American woman, born in the late 1500s, whose father was Powhatan, top chief of Tsenacommacah, an alliance of approximately 30 Algonquian-speaking groups.
Trump’s most recent name-calling happened last week when he reportedly told Democratic senators in a meeting that “Pocahontas is now the face of your party,” as quoted by CNN, after Warren received widespread media attention for being shut down by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) while she was reading a letter on the Senate floor by the late Coretta Scott King. In the letter, King, the widow of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., urged Congress to block the 1986 nomination of Jeff Sessions to become a federal judge, arguing that letting him join the federal bench would “irreparably damage the work of my husband” due to Sessions’ controversial work on race issues. Sessions was denied the federal judgeship, but was confirmed by the Senate on February 8 to become Trump’s Attorney General.
CNN further reported that Trump used the Pocahontas nickname for Warren multiple times during the meeting with Congress members, which one source told the outlet was “equal parts bizarre and completely awkward.”
Trump has felt he can get away with calling Warren by the name because she has in the past claimed Native American ancestry – Cherokee – based on familial lore, but without citing evidence to back up the claim. When she ran for the Senate in 2012 against Scott Brown, he made her ancestry a focus of his campaign, saying she had used a false identity to improve her standing in academia. Warren denied Brown’s allegations, but she did not respond to several Native Americans who raised concerns about the issue—and, since winning the election, she has remained largely silent on Indian issues while in the Senate.
At one point during Trump’s recent congressional meeting, the president speculated that the only reason Warren claimed Indian heritage was “because she has high cheekbones,” a source told CNN.
Even if Warren lied about being Cherokee, it doesn’t give Trump a pass here, according to many Native Americans who have found Trump’s latest and past name-calling to be offensive. Some have said that Trump is using the word Pocahontas in a way that evokes a slur, such as “squaw,” to taunt the senator. And no one believes he is honoring her.
“I think he definitely says it as a slur,” Jacqueline Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, told The New York Times last year after then-candidate Trump had once again used the name to describe Warren. “No matter how he feels about Elizabeth Warren, to throw that out there is disrespectful to real Native Americans.”
Democrats in Congress this time around have been quick to call out Trump on the issue. Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), who sits on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, told CNN February 12 that he would have "said something" to Trump had he been at the meeting—along the lines of, “'Mr. President, with all due respect, that's racist.'"
“Don't — please stop doing that. I'm on Indian Affairs,” Franken added. “This is completely unacceptable. You really should stop doing this. It doesn't serve anybody."
Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN), co-chair of the House Native American Caucus, has since joined in Franken’s lament, telling ICMN that Trump had spoken in a racist manner.
“On the campaign trail and in office, President Trump has repeatedly used bigoted and offensive rhetoric,” McCollum said. “His ugly references to Sen. Elizabeth Warren constitute a racial slur. President Trump’s comments send a horrible message not just to Native Americans, but to all Americans. Everyone, Republicans and Democrats, who care about common decency and respect should condemn these remarks.”
Anna Gonzalez, a spokesperson for Rep. Norma Torres (D-CA), the ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs, said that Torres also finds Trump’s use of Pocahontas unacceptable. “The Congresswoman believes it is completely inappropriate and childish for the President of the United States to mock anyone, for any reason,” she said.
Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), the vice-chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, was equally discouraged by Trump’s wording.
"Sen. Udall believes that name-calling and insults have no business in American society, especially from a president,” spokesperson Jennifer Talhelm told ICMN. “Time and again, Americans have rejected a world where racism, sexism and stereotyping were accepted. We can't allow this president to take us back to a time when derogatory descriptions of people were tolerated and swept under the rug.
“Sen. Udall believes we must use our voices and speak up when it happens, and let President Trump and all Americans know that it is not okay."
GOP Indian affairs Congress members don’t seem to mind Trump’s latest name-calling, however. Spokespersons for both Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND), the chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, and Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-CA District 1), chair of the Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs, have not responded to multiple requests for comment on Trump’s latest Pocahontas usage.
Warren’s office has not responded to requests for comment.