WASHINGTON – The leader of the GOP wanted to sell a few books. Instead, he stuck a foot in his mouth, using a derogatory term for Native Americans on national TV, in turn letting down many tribal citizens.
During a Jan. 4 appearance to promote his new book on the Sean Hannity Fox News cable program, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele discussed conservative principles, at one point insisting that the Republican Party does not need to modernize. He hit home the point with the words, “Honest injun on that.”
Almost immediately, many American Indians suggested he had done wrong; some blogged about the incident, linking to a widely circulating YouTube video of the gaffe.
Several online commenters pointed out that the word “injun” has historically been used by detractors and racists to knock the American Indian race.
Reference books, including dictionaries, back up those claims, noting that the phrase “honest injun” is considered impolite and politically incorrect because “injun” is a slang term for American Indians. Some observers said using it equates to calling an African American a “nigger.”
With the words being loaded with that much negative weight, some American Indian leaders and Congress members are rebuking Steele, saying he needs to make amends.
“[A]s a black American, Chairman Steele has significant points of empathy that, upon reflection, should help him realize that there’s no room in the lexicon of a public official for terms like ‘honest injun,’” said Nick Reo, director of the Native American Institute at Michigan State University and a citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.
“I would ask Chairman Steele to reflect on similar terms that are used regularly in our society that are unintentionally hurtful or demeaning and to think about the collective impact such terms have on groups of people. In such circumstances, it’s the impact that matters, not the intent.”
Robert Miller, a legal scholar with the Lewis & Clark Law School, said that regardless of Steele’s race, he has the responsibility as a public official to choose his words carefully.
“By using this offensive term, one wonders if he is as ignorant about all Native American issues as he seems to be about derogatory language.”
Miller, an enrolled citizen of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, said Steele should apologize even though some Indians may not have been offended.
When Indian Country Today called the RNC requesting comment from Steele, a staffer said the organization had received many inquiries about the incident. The person, who did not give her name, said a communications director would return a call for comment.
No comment was issued by press time, and Steele did not address the controversy during several television appearances since the remarks.
Many liberal blogs and mainstream media outlets have picked up on the gaffe, however, using the incident to indicate that the GOP leader is out of step.
Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., went further, saying he is “outraged and disgusted” that the head of the Republican Party would make such a “derogatory and offensive” statement about Native Americans on national television.
Kildee, co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus, noted, too, that Fox News, in the published transcript of the appearance, changed the words Steele spoke.
“In an effort to cover up Michael Steele’s racist comment, Fox News altered the transcript online to read ‘honest engine’ instead of ‘honest injun,’” Kildee said in a statement.
“For those of us who have been fighting to reverse decades of mistreatment of Native Americans, we all know what Mr. Steele said and what he meant.
“His insensitive comment undermines and threatens to reverse the progress we have made to correct those wrongs.
“A cursory look through a dictionary or even some knowledge of Native American history would show Mr. Steele that the term is a racial slur for Native Americans. I strongly urge Mr. Steele to publicly apologize to the Native American community immediately for his derogatory comment.”
Fox News did not respond to requests for comment on the alteration.
“I am thoroughly outraged that the leader of the National Republican Party would use such repulsive language on national television,” said Ronnie Washines, president, Native American Journalists Association. “Those of us in journalism have tirelessly worked to ensure that political leaders, newsrooms and the public be respectful to all cultures when speaking publically. Michael Steele’s scurrilous tongue does no service to his group and only undermines the positive work of those who sincerely seek to respect one another in all of our working relationships. I urge Michael Steele to carefully word a sincere apology to the Native American community, which could help stop such uneducated archaic racist remarks from being made in the future. We here at NAJA are available to assist him and his organization with obtaining an accurate understanding of Native America.”
Republican radio host Rush Limbaugh has used “injun” many times on his broadcast, and has not issued an apology, despite calls to do so.
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This story was originally published on Friday in the ICT newspaper. Steele then addressed the remarks over the weekend and Fox News has offered clarification. ICT is working on an update.