WASHINGTON: Native American leaders Tuesday accused President Donald Trump of insulting their heritage after he dubbed a political rival “Pocahontas” during a White House event intended to honour Navajo veterans.
Welcoming three ageing “code talkers,” Native Americans who helped keep allied operations secret during World War II, Trump threw etiquette out the window on Monday to attack Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren.
“You were here long before any of us were here,” Trump said to one of the groups of veterans in the Oval Office Monday.
“Although we have a representative in Congress who they say was here a long time ago. They call her Pocahontas,” he continued, resurrecting his favoured nickname for the outspoken senator whose Native American ancestry has been called into question by US conservatives.
Further fuelling controversy, Trump and the veterans stood during the ceremony beneath a portrait of controversial president Andrew Jackson — who ordered the forced removal of Native Americans from their ancestral land, causing thousands to die.
The White House denied after the meeting that Trump’s comment constituted a racial slur — accusing Warren, instead, of “lying” about her heritage, and describing that as “very offensive”.
But several Native American groups issued strongly-worded protests in the wake of the incident.
The Alliance of Colonial Era Tribes (ACET) said it considered Trump’s remark to be a slur.
“American Indian names, whether they be historic or contemporary, are not meant to be used as insults. To do so is to reduce them to racial slurs,” it said in a statement.
Likewise, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) regretted in a statement that “the president’s use of the name Pocahontas as a slur to insult a political adversary is overshadowing the true purpose of (Monday’s) White House ceremony.”
NCAI president Jefferson Keel emphasized that the real-life Pocahontas, the daughter of a 17th-century Native American chief whose story has been retold countless times including in a hit Disney movie, was “a hero to her people, the Pamunkey Indian Tribe in Virginia.”
“Once again, we call upon the president to refrain from using her name in a way that denigrates her legacy,” he said.
The NCAI had reacted once before, in April, to Trump calling Warren “Pocahontas” — saying it hoped the incident was “but a momentary slip-up”.
Amber Kanazbah Crotty, a Navajo Nation Council Delegate, argued meanwhile that Trump’s “careless” comment represented “systemic, deep-seated ignorance of Native Americans and our intrinsic right to exist and practice our ways of life.”
Pocahontas’ story entered the cultural mainstream thanks to the 1995 Disney animation, which painted a romanticized image of her meeting with Englishman John Smith, chief of the first colony established in Jamestown in 1607.
Later taken captive by the English, she converted to Christianity, took the name Rebecca and would eventually marry another Englishman, John Rolfe, with whom she travelled to England. She died soon thereafter, supposedly aged just 21.
Trump has repeatedly used the sobriquet “Pocahontas” to deride Warren, who asserts that her mother’s ancestors were members of the Cherokee and Delaware tribes, based on “family lore.”
Warren, a former Harvard Law School Professor, came under fire during her 2012 Senate race when conservatives accused her of exaggerating her heritage in order to advance her career — pinpointing the fact she had listed herself in a legal directory as Native American rather than white.
Academic officials from several universities where she worked said at the time that Warren’s lineage had not been a factor in hiring her.