By: Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk
On November 27 US President Donald Trump demonstrated his ignorance and insensitivity towards Native people when he welcomed the Navajo Code Talkers to the White House in Washington, DC.Meant to commemorate “Native American Month” in the US the reception was to acknowledge the service of the Navajo veterans who played a vital role in communicating information using Navajo code words during the Pacific conflict in World War II. The Code was never broken by the Japanese and is said to have saved thousands of lives on the part of the Allied forces.
The Navajos are the most famous and honored of Code Talkers but were only one of over two dozen Native nations used by the US military to transmit over the airwaves vital military intelligence. Among this group were Lakotas, Choctaws, Cheyennes, Oneidas, Hopis, Anishinabe and Mohawks but none of those people were included in the White House event.
The first Native nation employed in this manner were the Choctaws during the First World War even as the US federal Indian policy was to forcibly extinguish indigenous languages and cultures by designed exclusion in American historical texts or the active suppression in the notorious board schools.
Such was the determination of the Native nations to fight alongside the American military forces that the bitterness of relocation, territorial losses, and acculturation that aboriginal men and women elected to serve at the highest rates of any ethnic group in the US.
But Trump was unaware of the history of code talking or general Native-US history. He began by having the Navajo elders stand beneath a portrait of former US President Andrew Jackson, one his “heroes”, a notorious “Indian killer” who caused the death of thousands of Natives when he used the military to force the Cherokees, Choctaws and Seminoles from their ancestral homes in the east to “Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), an exodus defined by starvation, illness, and mortality. Jackson ignored the US Supreme Court and the US Constitution in ramming through the Indian Removal Act which opened millions of acres of stolen land to European settlement which led in turn to the radical growth in the enslavement of African peoples.
Jackson cared nothing for the human rights of Native people, his insensitivity was not benign but deliberate and damaging.
Trump follows suit. He belittled the Navajo when he elected to have Jackson’s image looming over the day’s ceremony. He also failed to acknowledge that other Natives made similar contributions and warranted formal recognition. He then made the situation into a tragic comedy by taking a swipe at US Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) by using the name of Pocahontas in reference to her claim of possibly having Native ancestry.
Pocahontas (1596-1617) was also known as Matoaka and Amonute, was a citizen of the Powhatan Confederacy in southeastern Virginia. She served as a peacemaker between the English settlers and her nation. She married an Englishman named John Rolfe, converted to Christianity, was baptized as “Rebecca” and lived in England where she died at the age of 21 as she was preparing to return home.
Her role in American history has been widely distorted until then her name and her alleged status as a “princess” has become a pejorative used against Native women. Trump’s comments only confirmed this distortion of the life of a remarkable human being.
That Trump lacks any empathy towards Natives is not surprising given his condemnation of indigenous economic initiatives. He has referred to the Akwesasne Mohawks, my people, as criminals and tried to humiliate the Pequots by attacking their physical appearance. The budget he is trying to pass through Congress diminishes federal aid to Native communities and he is making it easier for energy extraction companies to build pipelines across contested lands while loosening restrictions on mineral exploitation. He has also made it easier to hunt and kill animals which form an integral part of Native culture and sustenance.
Housing, education, law enforcement, environmental protection, job training, family abuse prevention programs-almost every area of need on Native territory would be greatly harmed by Trump’s budget.
This while President Andrew Jackson looms in the background with the spirit of that long dead executive pleased at the way Trump has carried on his policies of eviscerating all things indigenous.
No wonder that Trump’s title name as US President is “La-na-da-gai-ius” in Mohawk, meaning “town destroyer”. This name stems from the time of George Washington’s grandfather who had a nasty habit of burning Native towns in his taking of Indian lands. It has been passed down through the generations and is now applied, appropriately, to Mr. Trump.