Leaders of the Navajo Nation bowed out of a meeting with Donald Trump as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee held rallies in Las Vegas and Phoenix, and a fundraiser at Barry Goldwater’s old estate in Paradise Valley, Arizona.
Despite having extended an invitation to meet with Trump as he toured the West, Navajo leaders passed on the Saturday meeting, as Republicans rallied at the Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix. Leaders from the White Mountain Apache, Cocopah and Pascua Yaqui tribes met privately with Trump to brief the candidate on issues facing western tribes, including water rights, energy policies and forest fires.
Citing “conflicting schedules,” Navajo Council Speaker LoRenzo Bates said lawmakers could not attend the meeting. “Our schedules did not align this weekend,” Bates said in a phone interview. “Logistically, it just didn’t work out.”
Bates on June 10 released a statement announcing that his office had extended invitations to meet with each of the presidential candidates “to allow our leadership to have an open dialogue over issues impacting the Navajo Nation and to learn more about their plans for the Navajo Nation and Indian country as a whole.” Yet Trump’s trip to Phoenix sparked controversy among Navajo citizens, who were divided about whether their elected officials should meet with a candidate who consistently disparages Native Americans.
Trump repeatedly uses the name “Pocahontas” to deride Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who is one of his most vocal critics. His most recent attack on Warren came during a June 10 rally in Richmond, Virginia, when his taunts prompted some people in the crowd to break out in Indian war cries.
At a June 11 rally in Tampa, Florida, Trump joked about apologizing for the slur – to Pocahontas herself. “I will apologize: to Pocahontas,” he said. “To Pocahontas I will apologize, because Pocahontas is insulted.”
The mock-apology came one week before Navajo leaders were expected to meet with Trump – and amid cries for the race-based insults to stop. Navajo activist Amanda Blackhorse, the lead plaintiff in the case against the Washington Redskins, likened the Pocahontas nickname to the Redskins slur.
“In Trump’s eyes, we’re just stereotypes,” she said. “The way he uses the Pocahontas insult, that’s the way he sees Native women, Native people. Why would we want to give him the time of day?”
Blackhorse pointed to Trump’s long history of working against America’s indigenous people. As a casino tycoon with a multimillion-dollar empire in the 1990s, he sued the federal government, arguing that allowing tribes to open casinos discriminated against him. And during a congressional hearing in 1993, Trump questioned whether casino operators claiming Native status were pure-blood.
“They don’t look like Indians to me,” he said.
More than two decades later, Trump’s vendetta against Natives has not slackened, Blackhorse said. She said she was sickened to hear that Navajo leaders planned to meet with him at all.
“To Trump, we’re just people he goes to war with, stereotypes who threaten his temple,” she said. “Trump is a very dangerous man, and he would be a dangerous and detrimental president for the Navajo Nation and Indian country.”
Yet it is precisely this “misinformation” that led Arizona State Sen. Carlyle Begay to attend the Phoenix rally Saturday – and a closed-door meeting with Trump. Elected as a Democrat in 2013, Begay switched to the Republican Party earlier this year.
“I think leadership is about bringing people together to simply listen and learn,” Begay said in a phone interview. He, along with members of three other tribes, spent 30 minutes with Trump.
“It’s important to build bridges,” he said. “I don’t think we should turn down the opportunity to meet with any candidates and get them to understand the importance of federal trust responsibilities, about the history of tribes, which is replete with mistakes, tragic actions and lost opportunities. We can’t change that history, but we’re not condemned to repeat it.”
Begay said he talked to Trump about tribal sovereignty and strengthening government-to-government relationships. Should Trump become the next president, he needs to be informed, Begay said.
“The future of our communities is based on this understanding,” he said. “We need a president who can be a partner and build a great country with a vibrant economy while also taking into account tribal positions on federal decisions.”
The Saturday rally drew a crowd of a few thousand people – and ringing endorsements from former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and Sheriff Joe Arpaio. During his speech, Trump promised to bring back jobs, cut taxes, repeal the Affordable Care Act, dismantle Common Core and “make America greater than ever before.”
He also talked about the Orlando massacre – which he said was about terrorism, not gun control – and about immigration.
“We want people to come into our country … legally, legally,” he said.
Meanwhile, a crowd of peaceful protesters gathered outside the rally, including a small contingent of Navajo voters who vocally opposed any relationship between their elected leaders and the outspoken presidential candidate.
“The main point we wanted to make was that there are Navajo people who are opposed to Trump and any kind of relationship he might have with the Navajo Nation because of how problematic his views are,” said Klee Benally, who helped organize the Navajo protesters. “Meeting with him at all sends the wrong message, especially when you have this politician who’s a textbook racist, who wants to ban Islamic people and construct a border fence, who vilifies the indigenous people. We can’t even be perceived as endorsing this candidate.”