December 12, 2017

Trump Continues U.S. Legacy of Contempt for Native Americans

Stephanie Valenzuela

Donald J. Trump is not, and has never been, a friend to Indian Country.

Following his approval of the Dakota Access and the Keystone XL pipelines, it seemed like Donald J. Trump couldn’t make his disregard for Native nations any more blatant—until this last week, that is. In a span of just seven days, Trump’s administration dealt two massively disrespectful blows to Indian Country, and people are rightfully outraged.

Federal Land Theft

On Monday, the president announced the controversial shrinkage of Bears Ears National Monument by approximately 85 percent. This announcement comes after Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s review of 27 national monuments, which found six to be suitable for a reduction in size. Grand Staircase Escalante, a national monument in southern Utah, was also reduced to half of its former size.

Although both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante were made drastically smaller in this virtually unprecedented decision, Bears Ears has significant spiritual and cultural importance to many Native communities, whereas the shrinkage of Grand Staircase Escalante is largely being opposed by environmentalists, conservationists, and outdoor enthusiasts.

Bears Ears, a formerly 1.35 million acre chunk of land in southeastern Utah, was designated as a national monument by President Barack Obama in the last days of his presidency in 2016, following advocacy from Native American groups — specifically the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. Formal designation of the monument came after 14 months of negotiation between the coalition and the U.S. government.

Made up of members of the Diné, Hopi, Zuni, Ute Mountain Ute, and Ute Indians, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition holds the former monument as a sacred site. As it is home to over 100,000 archaeological sites, and many Native communities in the region have ties to the site since time immemorial, there is concern over preservation and protection of their cultural heritage. Over 13 tribes trace their lineage to the elaborate cliff dwellings and petroglyph-marcated spaces. Without the protection of monument status, the land is opened up to drilling, mining, and other resource extraction, as well as destruction by tourists who want to take a piece of the land home with them.

Following Trump’s executive order regarding review of the monuments earlier this year, Zinke met with Utah’s congressional delegation as well as a commission from San Juan County, where Bears Ears is located. Because of the Secretary’s deliberate ignorance of the tribal coalition’s input, the inter-tribal coalition  was forced to travel to Washington D.C to have a say in the discussion. Finally, during the Zinke’s visit to the monument, the coalition was granted a one-hour meeting with him; which, apparently, Secretary Zinke did not find persuasive.

This unprecedented move to shrink a federal monument is clearly a part of Trump’s larger political agenda, which is to vehemently oppose any executive actions taken by former President Obama.

John E. Echohawk, executive director of the Native American Rights Fund, said this about Trump’s actions in his piece for the Huffington Post: “Trump’s actions are illegal, unwarranted, and deeply unpopular. And they are a blatant attack on tribal sovereignty and self-determination.”

Several tribes, along with environmental and conservation groups, are taking legal action against Trump’s order.

Anti-Native Epithets in the White House

Trump’s blatant attack on Native sovereignty comes just a week after the President used his platform to further berate Native Americans. During a speech “honoring” Diné code talkers for their service in World War II, President Trump stated the following while standing in front of a portrait of Indian removal pioneer, Andrew Jackson: “You were here long before any of us were here, although we have a representative in Congress who they say was here a long time ago. They call her Pocahontas. But you know what? I like you because you are special.” He was referring to Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, who claims to have Cherokee ancestry.

Trump’s use of “Pocahontas” as a derogatory comment toward Warren is not a new occurrence, but the way in which the remark was made on this occasion is unprecedented for a sitting president. The use of Pocahontas’ name to refer to Warren is an anti-Native slur, and it works to brand Native Americans as monolithic communities demeaned down to a Disney caricature. Matoaka (the real Pocahontas) was a rape victim who was impregnated and then poisoned by the colonizers who held her captive. Her name does not belong in the president’s mouth, especially in the presence of Diné elders.

It is important to note that the Diné code talkers played an important role in WWII code-making because of the difficulty for non-Diné people have in learning the Navajo (Diné Bizaad) language. The president’s use of a racial slur in the presence of such honorees was disrespectful and unnecessary, at best. It also tarnished the event in the media cycle, seeing as Trump’s “Pocahontas” comment is now the focus of headlines, rather than the key role and history of the Diné code talkers, who are currently advocating for a museum dedicated to their service.

Trump is prone to incidents like this one; he continually puts his foot in his mouth and does not apologize for it, but this time is different. This man had the audacity to disrespect Native elders at an event meant to honor them. His utter disregard for the Diné community, the presence of its elders, and their high regard for the service of the code talkers highlighted his ceaseless affirmation of white supremacy and its followers.

Continued Presidential Racism

Both of these recent incidents are doubly concerning in light of the United States’ legacy of enacting policies that have caused physical and cultural genocide of Native Americans. Time and time again, when given the opportunity to laud the work of people of color or to denounce the ideology of white supremacy, President Trump chooses to do exactly the opposite. 

In these cases, Trump’s antics disrespected both the Diné code talkers specifically, the Native American community as a whole, and illustrated his complete disregard for indigenous input in the operations of the U.S. government. Trump, like his white supremacist forebears, continues to take Indian land and demean Native culture and history. He is not, and has never been, a friend to Indian Country.

These events serve as a reminder that people are subjected to colonization through a variety of means—whether it be the taking of land or the use of language to implant the idea of colonized people’s supposed inferiority in society at large. While these occurrences may not be surprising given the U.S.’s historical relationship with Natives and Trump’s past actions, these kinds of toxic ideas cannot continue to be brought into the mainstream.