Tribal leader responds to Eric Trump’s embarrassing defense of father’s racist slur

The president's son just doesn't get it.

With a portrait of President Andrew Jackson hanging in the background, President Donald Trump, right, speaks during a meeting with Navajo Code Talkers on Monday. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
With a portrait of President Andrew Jackson hanging in the background, President Donald Trump, right, speaks during a meeting with Navajo Code Talkers on Monday. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

On Tuesday, Eric Trump attempted to defend his father’s use of a racist slur about Native Americans during a White House event meant to honor Native Americans a day earlier. He did so by suggesting that there’s something comparably problematic about the Disney movie Pocahontas.

“The irony of an ABC reporter (whose parent company Disney has profited nearly half a billion dollars on the movie ‘Pocahontas’) inferring that the name is ‘offensive’ is truly staggering to me,” Trump tweeted.

President Trump used “Pocahontas” to derogatorily attack Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) during an Oval Office event on Monday meant to honor Native American code talkers. His son’s tweet alluded to a question Jonathan Karl of ABC News asked Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders about the president’s comments at Monday’s press briefing.

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In response to Karl’s question about the appropriateness of Trump’s use of a slur in that setting, Sanders said the idea that “Pocahontas” is a racial slur is “ridiculous.”

But during a conversation with ThinkProgress on Tuesday, Dr. John Norwood, general secretary of the Alliance of Colonial Era Tribes, pointed out that Sanders doesn’t get to decide whether “Pocahontas” is a racial slur or not.

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“The general use of the name is not — Pocahontas was a historic figure, so just simply using the name is not a racial slur,” Norwood, who is a member of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation, said. “However, the use of it in a derogatory fashion to insult someone degrades the name and all it represents, and then it becomes a racial slur. The president was attacking a claim by Senator Warren about American Indian ancestry, and to insult that claim by calling her ‘Pocahontas’ turns the name into a racial slur.”

Norwood went on to note that the ultimate arbiters of whether “Pocahontas” is a racial slur are American Indians.

“It doesn’t matter what the intent was… it’s not the insulter who gets to determine whether something is an insult — it is the people who are insulted,” he said.

With regard to Eric Trump’s tweet, Norwood said that while there are aspects of the Disney film Pocahontas that are problematic — “American Indian tribes were upset that Disney was making the film by telling her story based upon what appeared to be apocryphal tales from John Smith,” he said — there is no equivalency between the movie and what Trump said.

“Within that context Pocahontas was not used as an insult, it wasn’t turned into a derogatory term,” Norwood said. “The story did not represent accurate history, but that was a historical argument. It wasn’t a slap in the face with regard to demeaning the name and turning it into a derogatory term.”

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Many others agree with Norwood. Families of Navajo war veterans told the Associated Press that they are outraged by the president’s comments on Monday.

If Trump’s slur on Monday wasn’t troubling enough, the Oval Office event with the Native American code talkers was also held in front of a portrait of former President Andrew Jackson, whose Indian Removal Act led to the Trail of Tears and the deaths of 4,000 Cherokee and Creek tribe members.

Norwood said he doesn’t doubt that Trump sincerely intended to honor the code talkers, but characterized the event as “not well thought-out.”

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“They had them standing in from of a portrait of Andrew Jackson, who for American Indians was considered a great traitor and a villain to our people,” he said. “There are American Indians who won’t even carry a 20 dollar bill in their wallet because it has his face on it, so it becomes a desperate challenge to maintain your composure.”