Disgusting: When Racism & Slurs Become Political Strategy
During Elizabeth Warren’s first Senate campaign in 2012, the right-wing machine invented a 100% false story that Elizabeth lied about her heritage and used it to advance her career.
They have called Elizabeth “Pocahontas” and used racist depictions of Native American history, culture, and people to make Elizabeth the butt of a joke. These actions not only dishonor Native people and their many contributions to this country, but perpetuate harmful stereotypes that Native communities continue to fight against.
Show us your papers. Release your birth certificate. It’s all part of the right’s disgusting effort to use race-baiting and fear-mongering to distract our country and divide our people while they rig the system for the rich and powerful.
The real story of Native American communities is about resilience to reclaim their history and traditions. It’s about pride and determination of people who refuse to let their languages fade away and their cultures die. It’s about the contributions they make to a country that has taken so much and keeps asking for more — contributions like serving in the military at rates higher than any other group in America. And it’s a story of hope to give Native people a seat at the table to determine their own future — and build real opportunity for every child to succeed.
The history of Pocahontas – the real Pocahontas
The life of the real Pocahontas is very different from the fictional character most Americans know from the movies. Her fable has been held up to show the moral righteousness of colonization and bleach away the stain of Native American genocide.
When Pocahontas met John Smith, he was almost 30 years old – and she was about 10 years old. Whatever happened between them, it was no love story.
As a child, she played a significant role in mediating relations between the tribes ruled by her father and the early settlers at Jamestown. Those efforts helped establish early trade relations between the two peoples. Without her help, the English settlers might well have perished.
But in her teens, Pocahontas was abducted, imprisoned, and held captive. Oral history indicates that she was ripped away from her first husband and raped in captivity.
When she later married John Rolfe, he paraded her around London to entertain the British and prop up financial investments in the Virginia Company. She never made it home. She was about 21 years old when she died, an ocean apart from her people.
Indigenous people have been telling the story of Pocahontas – the real Pocahontas – for four centuries. A story of heroism. And bravery. And pain. And, for almost as long, her story has been taken away by powerful people who twisted it to serve their own purposes.
2012: The beginning of the Elizabeth Warren Native American attacks
The right-wing media first referred to Elizabeth as “Pocahontas” in print in May 2012 – in the same conservative-leaning newspaper that originally wrote about Elizabeth’s heritage just a few days earlier.
“We all know about ‘undocumented workers.’ Now we have Elizabeth Warren, the undocumented Indian.
Funny thing, I think Ted Williams was one-fourth Mexican. He was white. Johnny Bench is one-eighth Indian. I always think of him as white. And then there’s Pocahontas Warren, the blue-eyed, one-32nd Cherokee (or so we’re told) who went from the Southwest Conference to the Ivy League over the course of a decade in which she was claiming to be a ‘minority professor.'”
That very same day, conservative pundit Michelle Malkin wrote in the New York Post:
“Elizabeth Warren is the Harvard law professor running for Senate in Massachusetts as a Democratic populist-progressive champion. But don’t call her ‘Elizabeth Warren.’ Call her ‘Pinocchio-hontas,’ ‘Running Joke’ or ‘Sacaja-whiner.'”
This racist Native American terminology used against Elizabeth became common and normalized on Fox News, radio shows like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, through commentators like Ann Coulter, and through right-wing blogs, comment boards, and social media websites.
In September 2012, Republican political operatives were caught on tape “performing tomahawk chops and war whoops” at an event in Boston, which the Boston Globe wrote “appeared to mock Elizabeth Warren’s professed Native American ancestry.”
After the incident, Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker released a statement that said:
“The use of stereotypical ‘war whoop chants’ and ‘tomahawk chops’ are offensive and downright racist. It is those types of actions that perpetuate negative stereotypes and continue to minimize and degrade all native peoples.”
2016: Donald Trump brings the racist attacks against Native Americans to the presidential campaign stage.
The people of Massachusetts saw through the racist Republican attacks against Elizabeth and elected her by a large, seven-point margin in what had been considered one of the most competitive Senate race in the nation. But that didn’t stop 2016 Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump from taking the attacks hurled against Elizabeth to an ugly new level.
Donald Trump’s first use of the term “Pocahontas” during the election came in a New York Times column by Maureen Dowd on May 14, 2016:
“When I asked if he had been chided by any Republicans for his Twitter feud with Elizabeth Warren, he replied, ‘You mean Pocahontas?’ So much for reining it in.”
And it didn’t stop – on Twitter or anywhere else.
In fact, Donald Trump brought his friend Howie Carr — the original “Pocahontas” attacker (and Mar-a-Lago member) — to a Maine campaign rally in June 2016, mocking Elizabeth with war whoops.
The National Congress of American Indians responded to Howie Carr’s appearance at the Trump rally.
“We are outraged at the lack of cultural sensitivity and ignorance being portrayed as the race towards the White House continues. This is not a fight about political correctness, but rather a matter of respect for our people, our lands, our governments, and our youth.
This is between right and wrong – and this is wrong – as Native people we cannot standby and continue to let our culture and our youth be exposed to negative representation, no matter where it comes from. We are strong, we are resilient.”
2017-Present: President Trump brings the racist attacks to the Oval Office.
Donald Trump didn’t stop the name-calling when he got to the White House. After he used the name “Pocahontas” again in a May 2017 speech to the National Rifle Association, the National Congress of American Indians released another statement:
“It is not our common practice to comment on the partisan name-calling that has come to dominate American politics. But we cannot and will not stand silent when our Native ancestors, cultures, and histories are used in a derogatory manner for political gain.
Pocahontas was a real person who to this day holds significant value to her family and her tribe, the Pamunkey Indian Tribe in Virginia. The Pamunkey struck a treaty with the British Crown in the 1600s, and just last year were officially recognized as a federally recognized tribe by the U.S. government after a decades-long struggle. The name of Pocahontas should not be used as a slur, and it is inappropriate for anyone to use her name in a disparaging manner.
With the election long over, we hoped that President Trump would refrain from using this name as a pejorative term and other such terms that insult Native peoples and degrade their cultures in order to score political points. We hope that this was but a momentary slip-up, and that it is not indicative of how this Administration intends to treat and work with Indian Country moving forward.”
In November 2017, at a White House ceremony honoring Navajo code talkers – heroes who helped save the world from fascism and hate during World War II – Trump once again came after Elizabeth. And he did so while standing in front of a portrait of Andrew Jackson, the slaveholder president who signed the 1830 Indian Removal Act, which forcibly removed Native tribes from their homelands and resulted in the death of thousands of Native Americans.
The National Congress of American Indians once again commented:
“We regret that the President’s use of the name Pocahontas as a slur to insult a political adversary is overshadowing the true purpose of today’s White House ceremony. Today was about recognizing the remarkable courage and invaluable contributions of our Native code talkers. That’s who we honor today and everyday – the three code talkers present at the White House representing the 10 other elderly living code talkers who were unable to join them, and the hundreds of other code talkers from the Cherokee, Choctaw, Comanche, Lakota, Meskwaki, Mohawk, Navajo, Tlingit, and other tribes who served during World Wars I and II. We also honor the service and bravery of all of our veterans and those currently serving from Indian Country. Native people serve in the Armed Forces at a higher rate than any other group in the country, and have served in every war in this nation’s history.
And we honor the contributions of Pocahontas, a hero to her people, the Pamunkey Indian Tribe in Virginia, who reached across uncertain boundaries and brought people together. Once again, we call upon the President to refrain from using her name in a way that denigrates her legacy.”
Then-President of Navajo Nation, Russell Begaye called President Trump’s actions in the Oval Office “culturally insensitive”:
“In this day and age, all tribal nations still battle insensitive references to our people. The prejudice that Native American people face is an unfortunate historical legacy.”
Most recently in July 2018, in a Montana speech mocking both Native Americans and the #metoo movement in a single breath, Donald Trump threatened to throw a DNA test at Elizabeth but said he would “do it gently” out of respect for the movement to stop sexual assault against women.
Our country’s mistreatment of Native people must end.
Our country’s disrespect of Native people didn’t start with Donald Trump — it started long before George Washington ever took office.
And our mistreatment of Native communities isn’t just about casual racism — war whoops and Tomahawk chops and insulting Facebook memes.
- Discrimination and neglect: Health care needs of Native children and families have gone unmet. Native people — especially teenagers — have alarmingly high rates of suicide. And the opioid crisis and broader epidemic of substance abuse have ravaged many Native communities.
- Greed: For generations, the government robbed Native people of their land, suppressed their languages, put their children in boarding schools for assimilation, and gave their babies up for adoption. The government stole their resources, fouled their rivers and streams, and, for many tribes, took away their opportunity to grow and prosper. And even as their economic future hangs in the balance, politicians want to cut nutrition assistance, Medicaid, and other programs that many Native families need to survive.
- Violence: The kind of violence that Andrew Jackson and his allies perpetrated isn’t just an ugly chapter in a history book. Violence remains part of life today. The majority of violent crimes experienced by Native Americans are perpetrated by non-Natives, and more than half of Native women have experienced sexual violence.
Washington, D.C. owes Native Americans respect — and a fighting chance to build stronger communities and a brighter future. For example, banking and credit are the lifeblood of economic development, but it’s about twelve miles on average from the center of tribal reservations to the nearest bank branch. Meanwhile, Native business owners get less startup funding than other business owners.
And when it comes to crucial infrastructure, Native communities are far behind the rest of the country. Rural broadband access on tribal lands is worse than anywhere else in America, and more than a third of those living on tribal lands don’t have high speed broadband at all. Without it, Native communities are simply shut out of a 21st Century economy.
It’s time to make real investments in Indian country to build opportunity for generations to come.
And that’s only part of the real change we can make.
- We can stop giant corporations from stealing Native resources.
- We can expand federally protected land that is important to Native tribes.
- We can protect historic monuments and sacred sites like Bears Ears from companies that see them as just another place to drill or mine.
- We can take steps to stop violence against Native people – including passing Savanna’s Act to fight the plague of missing Native women and girls.
Elizabeth is also working hard to help Indian Country fight the opioid epidemic and tackle addiction, problems that have hit tribal communities especially hard. Earlier this year, she worked with Rep. Elijah Cummings to introduce the Comprehensive Addiction Resources Emergency (CARE) Act, which would send more than $800 million annually to tribal governments and organizations to fight the addiction crisis and make it easier to hold drug company executives personally accountable for their role in creating the crisis. The National Indian Health Board, which endorsed the bill, said it “applauds the efforts of the CARE Act to respect the federal trust responsibility and recognize the severe need for relief from opioid misuse and addiction in Indian Country.” In April 2018, Elizabeth participated in an inter-tribal roundtable on the opioid crisis and addiction at the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma, and another roundtable with the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in Massachusetts. Elizabeth also cosponsored the bipartisan Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, a bill signed into law in 2016 that provided important tools to help tribes fight heroin and opioid addiction, and supports other efforts in Congress to ensure tribes have the resources they need to tackle these issues.
Suicide rates in Indian Country are tragically high, and Elizabeth is working to address this epidemic by empowering tribal communities. She introduced the Native American Suicide Prevention Act with Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski and 15 other cosponsors from both sides of the aisle. This bill requires states to collaborate with tribes in designing and implementing suicide prevention programs. “Any conversation on suicide intervention and prevention must begin at the grassroots, and tribal communities must be involved in every step of the process, from conception and design to implementation,” Elizabeth and Representative Raúl Grijalva, who sponsored the House version of the bill, wrote in an op-ed for Indianz.com. “Tribal citizens know what works for their communities, and it’s time to reinforce their efforts to implement multi-dimensional and culturally competent approaches to suicide prevention.”
Elizabeth has worked on important steps to stop violence against Native people, and especially women. She joined her Democratic colleagues to insist that the reauthorized Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) contain new protections for Native victims of abuse. She cosponsored the reauthorized VAWA, which was signed into law in 2013 and included a groundbreaking provision that affirms tribal sovereignty. Elizabeth is also an original cosponsor of Savanna’s Act, a bill that would help fight the plague of missing Native women and girls. And she has reached across the aisle to cosponsor the POWER Act, which requires federal courts to hold public events to promote pro bono legal services for Native victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking. The POWER Act was signed into law in September 2018.
And Elizabeth has fought to ensure that our country’s cannabis policies don’t leave Indian Country behind. For many Native tribes, cannabis represents an important opportunity for economic development, and for some it has cultural or medicinal importance. Elizabeth introduced the STATES Act with Colorado Republican Senator Cory Gardner to safeguard the ability of states, territories, and tribes to decide how to enforce their own marijuana policies. The STATES Act – and especially its important tribal provisions – has received strong support from Indian Country. “For tribes, the STATES Act respects tribal sovereignty by providing tribes with a voice in how a state’s decision to move toward a marijuana regulatory regime will affect our communities,” Suquamish Tribe Chairman Leonard Forsman wrote in Indian Country Today, urging Congress to pass the bill soon. “It would allow tribes, in states that have decriminalized marijuana, to continue utilizing federal law criminalizing marijuana or to implement their own tribal regulatory regime.”
The story of our country’s mistreatment of Native communities needs to be told. And we must come together to write a new story, where Native communities take their rightful seat at the table and determine for themselves how to build a stronger, brighter, and safer future.
We must stop Donald Trump’s politics of division.
The rich and powerful profit when government doesn’t work for working people – and they’ve learned that the best way to stop us from changing the system is to pit people against each other.
Donald Trump and his pals tell working people a story about what’s gone wrong in their lives. It isn’t about big banks cheating customers, or insurance companies discriminating against people, or drug companies charging $600 for a pill that costs $1 to make, or billionaires who don’t pay their fair share so there’s no money for education, or infrastructure, or basic medical research.
No, the problem is other working people. People who are black or brown. People who were born somewhere else. People who don’t worship the same, dress the same, or talk the same. It comes in all sorts of flavors: Racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia. It comes in all sorts of forms: Nasty personal attacks. Trolling on Twitter. Winking at white supremacists.
It all adds up to the same thing: the politics of division. Politics that tries to pit African American, Latino, Asian, white, and Native American people against each other so they won’t band together.
If we distrust each other, fear each other, and hate each other, the rich and powerful get to keep writing the rules for the rich and powerful – and leave everyone else behind. They want us pointing fingers at each other so we won’t notice their hands in our pockets.
It stops here and now. We will not let the rich and the powerful divide us. We are here to fight back, bring working families together, and demand a government that works for all of us.