On Monday, a White House ceremony that was to honor World War II Navajo Code Talkers transformed into a disgraceful display of racial insensitivity when President Donald Trump mockingly referred to Senator Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas.” Trump, perhaps not so ironically, gave the speech while standing in front of a portrait of Andrew Jackson, who in 1830 signed the Indian Removal Act that forced thousands of Native Americans from their ancestral lands. Similar to his past racially insensitive remarks, Trump’s comment immediately drew harsh criticism from Native American groups, leaders, politicians and the families of the Navajo veterans.
Adding to the insult, President Trump’s racially insensitive comment came just a few weeks after the White House proclaimed November 2017 to be National Native American Heritage Month. Afterwards, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended his comment, claiming that it was not his “intent” to insult the veterans. That the President designated a month to celebrate Native American contributions but used an offensive slur in a speech intended to honor Native American war heroes is shockingly ignorant and tone-deaf. Furthermore, the President’s rhetoric of respecting Native American communities rings hollow and hypocritical given his push for the construction of the Keystone Pipeline this year, which faced staunch Native American opposition and has so far leaked thousands of barrels of oil onto indigenous lands.
Yet the President’s ignorance is not isolated, but symptomatic of a country that still remains under-informed about Native American history and issues. It is still painfully too common to see symbols of this marginalization within the American mainstream: culturally appropriative costumes during Halloween, sports teams with offensive caricatures as mascots and the observation of Columbus Day, a holiday that commemorates the European conquest of the Americas at the expense of indigenous populations. Part of this is due to the way history is taught in our country: American history textbooks tend to minimize the centuries of forced removal and assimilation of Native American people while glossing over the rich histories and cultures of indigenous peoples. Generic mentions of “Native Americans” or “Indians” in historical events depict them as monolithic populations, erasing the identities of the nation’s many diverse tribes and their roles in American history. It is thus unfortunate but not too surprising that President Trump decided to appropriate an age-old Native American stereotype to tastelessly criticize Senator Warren while simultaneously disrespecting the very real Navajo heroes being honored at the ceremony.
At Duke, Native American students comprise only about 1 percent of the student population. Thus, compared to other communities of minority students, it can be more difficult for issues affecting Native American students to gain visibility on campus. This month, the Duke Native American Student Alliance has hosted a series of events on Native American issues, ranging from naming and mascot usage to arts and performance. It is important for students to take advantage of these opportunities to learn more about Native American history and issues, not only to support our fellow students, but also to acknowledge our collective “forgetting” of various indigenous groups. It is not enough to be outraged whenever another presidential faux pas by Trump seeps into the media headlines. We should also critically examine the ways in which we may also be ignorant or misinformed. Native American history is American history, and these legacies should be included within the national mainstream.
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