Donald Trump wants minorities to vote for him. He’s reaching out to different races that he’s described as “living in poverty” in neighborhoods that are “more dangerous than war zones.” He repeatedly followed his assessments by implying his policies could elevate their quality of life. The presidential hopeful has even asked minorities in multiple states to vote for him based upon the question, "What do you have to lose?" Attempting to appeal to diverse voters is a strategic pivot for the unfiltered Trump who infamously labeled Mexicans as “rapists,” proposed a wall between the United States and Mexico, and has floated the idea of Muslim internment camps. Yet the brazen candidate tried to prove the sincerity of his new inclusive approach when he announced mid-August that, "Sometimes, in the heat of debate and speaking on a multitude of issues, you don't choose the right words or you say the wrong thing. I have done that – and, believe it or not, I regret it." While both Trump and his campaign surrogates have declined to specify instances that the candidate was referring to, the Native American voters he’s courting should demand he first apologize for his insults of Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Warren and Trump have no love lost between them. They each have very different visions for America’s future. Yet while they both don’t mince words when dismissing each other, this summer Trump went too far when he repeatedly chided Warren by calling her “Pocahontas”—an attack on Warren’s alleged but undocumented Native American heritage. The assaults on Warren’s ethnicity are not a new tactic. During her first senatorial campaign, her opponent’s supporters charged that then Professor Warren, committed ethnic fraud and tricked Harvard Law School into hiring her byway of Affirmative Action protocols. Warren explained in her book, A Fighting Chance, that while she has no proof of her ancestry, her mother was raised in what was then Indian Territory, Oklahoma and that her father’s family disowned him for marrying her biracial mother. More to the point, Harvard’s hiring committee told the media in 2012 that they didn’t know about Warren’s background when they offered her a position on their faculty, and therefore the claims that she used her alleged tribal dissent to gain favor were without merit.
Certainly committing ethnic fraud by claiming false Native ancestry to get ahead in one’s career should be condemned, but that’s not the case with Warren. The truth is that the Massachusetts senator’s ancestors lived on the land where the Trail of Tears ended during a time when Native people were encouraged to both assimilate into the over-culture and disclaim tribal lineage. She, like many others before her, may be a descendant of victims of the United States failed nineteenth century Indian policies, which both decimated tribes and tribal people.
The actions taken by Warren’s past opponents were disrespectful to all Native people and Trump shouldn’t have echoed them this summer. During her 2012 campaign, her adversaries took to calling her “Fauxcahontas”, posted a billboard depicting her in a headdress stating, “Elizabeth Warren is a joke,” and mocked her with “war whoops” during her campaign stops. This appalling behavior cannot be justified. Yet when Warren attacked Trump’s policies in 2016, he was quick to dismiss her as “Pocahontas”—a poor but often repeated attempt at an insult given the bravery, ingenuity, and tenacity of the seventieth century Powhatan.
Still, Trump certainly intended the “Pocahontas” label to undercut Warren’s credibility. When asked if he had any regrets in using the name due to it’s disrespect towards Native people Trump stated on June 10th,“None whatsoever.” On June 20, Trump said, “I do regret calling her Pocahontas, because I think it’s a tremendous insult to Pocahontas. So, to Pocahontas, I would like to apologize to you.” Then on June 27th, he posted to Twitter that “Pocahontas is not happy, she’s not happy. She’s the worst. You know, Pocahontas — I’m doing such a disservice to Pocahontas, it’s so unfair to Pocahontas — but this Elizabeth Warren, I call her ‘goofy,’ Elizabeth Warren, she’s one of the worst senators in the entire United States Senate.” The fact is that Trump should know better. He’s unapologetically equating proposals he disagrees with to both “goofiness” and intended insults about ones’ tribal heritage. This shortsightedness on his part is not only a logical fallacy—it’s dismissive of the damages caused by generations of failed federal policies.
While the nature of Trump’s attacks on Warren’s heritage is indefensible, they’re not his most unabashed misuse of Native American history. In his book, Crippled America, Trump defends his belief that the Fourteenth Amendment didn’t intend anyone born in the United States to be an American citizen. He states, “Most Native Americans, for example, although they were born here, were not automatically granted citizenship—and it took almost 150 years before a law was passed making them citizens if they wanted to be.” First, the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 made all Natives citizens—they had no choice in the matter. Second, the law was passed so that Native people were finally given the rights afforded to others, including the right to vote. Finally, arguing that a law granting citizenship to oppressed people should somehow justify eliminating rights of other would-be citizens makes about as much sense as taunting one’s adversary with the name of a courageous historical figure.
Currently America’s Native People are living in a time that’s granted them some prosperity despite a history of oppression. While there’s a long ways to go, self-determination, tribal colleges and universities, Indian Gaming, and reparations such as the Cobell Settlement have helped to elevate America’s indigenous people. So rather than asking Tribal voters, “What do you have to lose?” Trump should be listing what Native People will gain from his presidency. Correcting past wrongs, and not misrepresenting them, is required of all candidates, and demanding Trump specify his regrets to Senator Warren and any Native People he’s offended with his comments must be nonnegotiable.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the Inquisitive Academic or any other opinion columns published by the Tribal College Journal (TCJ) do not necessarily reflect the opinions of TCJ or the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.
Ryan Winn teaches English, Theater, and Communication at College of Menominee Nation, where he has been recognized as the American Indian College Fund’s Faculty Member of the Year.