It was a show of respect to Native Americans when President Obama on Sunday restored the name of the nation’s tallest mountain, formerly called Mount McKinley, to Denali. So it makes a lot of sense that presidential candidate Donald Trump didn’t like it.
On Tuesday, the Republican front-runner promised that he would reverse Obama’s decision if elected president. Restoring the mountain’s name to Denali, he said, was a “great insult to Ohio,” because former President William McKinley was born there. To be clear, Denali is located in Alaska, about 3,000 miles away from Ohio.
It’s unsurprising that Trump did not express concern for insulting Alaska Natives, who have been calling the mountain Denali for thousands of years. The billionaire has a historically hostile relationship with Native Americans, largely stemming from the fact that his casino business competes with tribe-owned casinos. But it was never solely business dealings that soured the relationship — it was Trump’s willingness to invoke offensive, sometimes racially-charged language to come out of those dealings on top.
The most egregious example of this came in 2000 in upstate New York, when Trump began bankrolling an ad campaign to stop a casino from being built in the Catskills. As the New York Times reported last month, the local newspaper ads showed “hypodermic needles and drug paraphernalia … [and] warned in dire terms that violent criminals were coming to town.”
“Are these the kind of neighbors we want?” the ad asked, referring to the St. Regis Mohawks Tribe at Akwesasne, which was planning to build the casino. “The St. Regis Mohawk record of criminal activity is well-documented.”
When the ads came out, Akwesasne Mohwaks were incensed. The uproar was documented in a book called Enduring Legacies, which explains that while there was some illegal activity within the tribe, “implying that all Akwesasne Mohawks support such activities is something of a racial slur.” The advertising, it asserted, was “clearly informed by the racist attitudes prevailing in the area” at the time. Local tribal leaders also took out their own newspaper ads in response to Trump’s. “How dare they smear a nation and brand us all as criminals,” it read.
It’s also worth noting that Trump initially tried to conceal his involvement in those ads. At the time they were released, the anti-Mohawks ads were put forth by an anti-casino group called the New York Institute for Law and Society. It wasn’t until New York’s state lobbying commission began investigating Trump’s funding of the organization that he admitted he was its primary funder. According to the Times, Trump entered into a settlement with the commission in which he was forced to pay a fine and apologize — “not for the content of the anti-Mohawk ads, but for evading state disclosure rules related to lobbying and political advocacy.”
A spokesperson for Trump did not return ThinkProgress’ request for comment. But in that article, Trump maintained he didn’t mean to racially insult the tribe. “I wasn’t knocking the Mohawks; I was knocking their record,” he said. “That’s not because they’re Mohawks. That’s because their record is bad and was proved to be bad at the time.”
But it wasn’t the only time he had made inflammatory remarks about Native Americans.
Back in 1993, Trump gave testimony to the Congressional Subcommittee Native American Affairs. A casino in Connecticut, owned by the Pequot Indians, had just become the most popular one in America, surpassing Trump’s casino in Atlantic City. Trump was unhappy about this, and accused the casino owners of not being authentic Native Americans.
“‘They don’t look like Indians to me,” he said, “and they don’t look like Indians to Indians.” A Mediaite report noted that The Pequot have had centuries on interbreeding after being largely massacred by English settlers in the 1600s, so many have Caucasian features.
At the subcommittee hearing, Trump then began railing against the idea that Native Americans should be able to own casinos at all, due to organized crime. If they continued to be allowed, he said at the time, “you’re going to have the biggest organized crime problem in the history of this country. Al Capone is going to look like a baby.”
“It’s going to blow,” he continued. “It’s just a question of time, and when it blows you are going to have a lot of very embarrassed faces sitting right where you folks are sitting right now.”
Reporting from the hearing noted “gasps and puzzled looks of disbelief” from the mostly-Native American audience, and a rebuttal from an FBI official who said he had “found no evidence of skimming, money laundering, theft or any other criminal activity in Indian gaming.” To this day, the accusations haven’t panned out.
What also hasn’t panned out since then is a clear effort from Trump, now the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, to smooth or improve his relationship with Native Americans. And in that department, his decision to reverse Denali’s name back to McKinley surely won’t do him any favors.