Trump, Pocahontas, Indian Killer, and the Navajo Code Talkers
“They have neither the intelligence, the industry, the moral habits, nor the desire of improvement which are essential to any favorable change in their condition. Established in the midst of another and a superior race, and without appreciating the causes of their inferiority or seeking to control them, they must necessarily yield to the force of circumstances and ere long disappear.”
- President Andrew Jackson
It was supposed to be a ceremony to honor the legendary Navajo Code Talkers of World War II. The three Navajo Code Talkers at the White House were representing the 13 veteran Code Talkers who are still alive today. On such solemn occasions, honoring elder patriots and veterans who put everything on the line for our country, it is common practice to set aside partisan insults, racial slurs, and passive bigotry, especially if you happen to be the president.
Not this time.
Present at the ceremony was Fleming Begaye, 97, who survived the Battle of Tarawa, where his landing craft was blown up and he had to swim to the beach, and of Saipan, where he landed on Tinian and was shot, spending a year in a naval hospital to recover.
And there was Thomas Begay, one of the Code Talkers on Iwo Jima, whom after serving in the Marines in World War II, enlisted in the Army and served during the Korean War, surviving the battle at Chosin.
Finally, there was Peter MacDonald, president of the 13 surviving Navajo Code Talkers. Peter enlisted at age 15 and went with the Marines to Guam, then on to North China. He's now a young 90 years of age.
The code talker story began in the early days of World War II when the Japanese were breaking the U.S. military codes used for communications across the Pacific. But in 1942, the military found a way to send messages that the Japanese couldn't decipher. They sent them in Navajo.
The hundreds of Navajo Code Talkers who went to war as volunteers for a country that had only made them citizens less than 20 years earlier are all heroes. They served valiantly, and despite the circumstances of the event on November 27, they maintained their dignity and courtesy under difficult circumstances.
Despite the president.
MacDonald, who represented the three Navajo Code Talkers during opening remarks at the ceremony, delivered an informative and touching first person background to the history of the Code Talkers. He concluded with the mission of the 13 remaining Code Talkers:
"The 13 of us, we still have one mission - that mission is to build national Navajo Code Talker Museum. We want to preserve this unique World War II history for our children, grandchildren, your children, your grandchildren to go through that museum.
"Why? Because what we did truly represents who we are as Americans. America, we know, is composed of diverse community. We have different languages, different skills, different talents, and different religion. But when our way of life is threatened, like the freedom and liberty that we all cherish, we come together as one. And when we come together as one, we are invincible. We cannot be defeated. That's why we need this national Navajo Code Talker Museum so that our children, the future generation, can go through that museum and learn why America is so strong."
It doesn't get much more American that that, though I'd add we need a Museum of the Genocide of Native Americans as well, to remind all of us of a few other aspects of our nation's history.
But MacDonald's sincere and patriotic message began to get lost when the president reached the podium.
"That was so incredible, and now I don't have to make my speech. I had the most beautiful speech written out. I was so proud of it. Look. And I thought you would leave out Iwo Jima, but you got that in the end, too. (Laughter.)
"And I want to tell you -- you said you're 90 years old? That's great, because you have good genes. That means the press has got me to kick around for a long time. (Laughter.)
"That was beautiful. I loved that and I loved your delivery. And the Code Talkers are amazing. And seriously, it is what I said. So what I'm going to do is give you my speech, and I want you to hold that. And I know you like me, so you'll save it. But that was so well delivered, from the heart. That was from the heart."
While those comments revolved around the president a bit more than they might have, and they had to include a dig at the press, they were just the opening act for what was to come.
"And I just want to thank you because you're very, very special people. You were here long before any of us were here, although we have a representative in Congress who, they say, was here a long time ago. They call her "Pocahontas.'"
Yes. He went there. First, let's take a look at the president's deep and insightful understanding of Native American history and culture. He knows that Native Americans were here "long before any of us," except, perhaps, Senator Elizabeth Warren, or "Pocahontas," as President Trump refers to her.
While there are questions as to Warren's Native heritage, that's not the point here, of course. It's the president's derisive use of the "name" of a historical Native American figure to attack a political opponent on a junior high school level that sends the honoring of the Navajo Code Talkers off the tracks.
First, though this isn't much spoken of in opinion pieces written about this incident, what the president's "Pocahontas" comment does is puts all the attention back on him, instead of the Navajo Code Talkers, where that attention belongs. They've done admirable, patriotic things for our country, and they've done them with integrity and honor. They deserved better than to be stage dressing for an immature political attack.
Second, there are numerous Native American cultures, and the president's comments reveal a woefully ignorant and shallow perspective that equates a historical figure named Matoaka (or Amonute, as well as a nickname, Pocahontas), born in the late 16th century to Powhatan, a leader of a number of tribal nations in what is now known as Virginia, with use as a low brow insult. Tribal nations are not all one and the same, and her story is complex and nuanced, touching upon some issues which don't lend themselves very well to being used by whites as an insult, nor, if we're being honest, to being used as a Disney character (but that's another story).
But really, writer Ruth Hopkins (former tribal attorney, science professor, co-founder of Lastrealindians.com, blogger, speaker, biologist, judge, and columnist), addresses it best.
"Pocahontas was a pre-teen who was kidnapped, held hostage & raped by European invaders," Hopkins tweeted. "Stop using her name as a racial slur & how dare you insult these brave Native men who risked their lives for this country."
She followed up with, "Not to mention, these men are Navajo (Dine) and Pocahontas was from the Pamunkey tribe. Two entirely different Native nations."
The crowning sad irony of the event to honor the Navajo Code Talkers was that the entire ceremony was held in front of a portrait (see above) of President Andrew Jackson, a man known as "Indian killer," who put into effect the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which eventually led to the Trail of Tears in 1838 and 1839, a brutal forced relocation of the Cherokee that killed thousands and pushed tens of thousands from their ancestral lands to make way for white settlement.
Jackson wasn't entirely unsympathetic to the plight of Native Americans, but he was entirely willing to accept their genocidal demise as an unfortunate part of westward expansion of white America. Indeed, he seemed to see forced relocation as a far better alternative than leaving the tribes where they were, as he noted in this message to Congress in 1831:
"It is pleasing to reflect that results so beneficial, not only to the States immediately concerned, but to the harmony of the Union, will have been accomplished by measures equally advantageous to the Indians. What the native savages become when surrounded by a dense population and by mixing with the whites may be seen in the miserable remnants of a few Eastern tribes, deprived of political and civil rights, forbidden to make contracts, and subjected to guardians, dragging out a wretched existence, without excitement, without hope, and almost without thought."
Jackson may have had a point: the Indian was damned, one way or another. He also had his prejudices. He believed in the inherent inferiority of Native Americans to whites (see opening quote), who couldn't compete with whites with their "arts of civilization."
"Our conduct toward these people is deeply interesting to our national character. Their present condition, contrasted with what they once were, makes a most powerful appeal to our sympathies. Our ancestors found them the uncontrolled possessors of these vast regions. By persuasion and force they have been made to retire from river to river and from mountain to mountain, until some of the tribes have become extinct and others have left but remnants to preserve for awhile their once terrible names. Surrounded by the whites with their arts of civilization, which by destroying the resources of the savage doom him to weakness and decay, the fate of the Mohegan, the Narragansett, and the Delaware is fast overtaking the Choctaw, the Cherokee, and the Creek. That this fate surely awaits them if they remain within the limits of the states does not admit of a doubt. Humanity and national honor demand that every effort should be made to avert so great a calamity."
Whatever conclusions we may draw about Jackson as a president and a human being, hosting honored Native American patriots in the White House in front of the portrait of a man whose actions and beliefs caused so much suffering and death to Native Americans in his time, is grossly insensitive and disrespectful at best, gloating and racist at its worst.
The Navajo Nation responded to the incident, which, I confess, I am having difficulty writing about, because it is something so unpresidential, so pathetically inept, so disrespectful of both the honored Navajo Code Talkers, and all Native Americans, as well as the office of the president. Let's just put it this way: the Navajo Nation shouldn't have had to respond.
"Today's careless comment from President Trump is the latest example of systemic, deep-seated ignorance of Native Americans and our intrinsic right to exist and practice our ways of life," stated Navajo Nation Council Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty. "The intentional disregard of the historical trauma of Pocahontas as a sexual assault survivor directly resulting from colonization is disturbing.
"The Navajo People are not strangers to the prejudice, discrimination, and marginalization perpetrated by western culture," she continued. "Our women and children are targets of violence. We must speak out against such ignorance in every instance, in hopes for a better future for our children and our land."
At this point, I'd like to personally thank Crotty for including White House Press Secretary Sarah Hucakabee Sanders for her revolting defense of the remark and conduct of the president during this event.
"I must respond to White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders' flat-out denial of this racial slur, dismissing the tangible and egregious impact perjoratives have on indigenous people," Crotty continued. "I must respond to President Trump's remark today referencing Pocahontas. With due respect, it is problematic for the president [to] use this term in the manner we heard today. It diminishes the experience of Pocahontas and is totally inappropriate. The reckless appropriation of this term is deeply offensive and dangerous to the sovereignty and identity of our peoples. Such rhetoric is damaging, and it is a serious infringement of our right to live as Native Americans.
"The Navajo Code Talkers are not pawns to advance a personal grudge, or promote false narratives," she added. "Such pandering dishonors the sacrifice of our national heroes. Let me be clear, such antics do not change the fact of history. Indigenous peoples' disparate socioeconomic issues are a direct result of this false narrative, and we cannot sit idly by as the citizens of the United States and our indigenous children are gas-lighted from this terrible truth."
There's really no way around the fact that the way the "honoring" of the Navajo Code Talkers went this week in the White House was shameful and a disgrace. It highlights the fact that we have, at best, an amateur in the office of the president. But it's not all bad. Or rather, it could always be worse. General Kelly refused to stick his foot in his mouth.
"Well, sir, as you know, being associated with United States Marines, it's as much a cult as it is a service. And we never forget. Our motto, of course, is Semper Fidelis -- always faithful. Whether you're a young recruit at Parris Island or San Diego, or a middle-aged guy from out west, what these men did, the advantage they gave our Marines when they invaded Iwo Jima was really -- and I think it was pointed out -- was one of the very few factors that allowed us to be successful on that island.
"Their ability to outwit the Japanese who were, you know, listening to this wonderful language and had no idea that a language like this existed on the Earth. What they did, very small number of men, sir, made the difference. We lost 6,000 Marines and 25,000 wounded on that island in 28 days of battle. It would have been a lot worse had we not had the Navajo Code Talkers. And I thank you.
Spoken like a Marine. And not to excuse Trump, but perhaps speeches are not quite his thing.
"But you know what, I like you because you are special," Trump said. "You are special people. You are really incredible people. And from the heart, from the absolute heart, we appreciate what you've done, how you've done it, the bravery that you displayed, and the love that you have for your country...
"So they're working on building a Navajo Code Talkers Museum. And we will help you. Okay? And we have some pretty good strength. We will help you, and you deserve it. And I want to thank you all for being here.
"I assume you're the young one in the group? Are you the young one in the group? Thank you so much for being here. You're very special people. And without you, maybe the results would have been a lot different. I've heard that, actually, the results could have very well been different.
"So, on behalf of the United States, thank you all. Very much appreciate it."
Trump seems fascinated with Jackson as a populist president. I'm certain he'd agree with the sentiments of this remark made in 1830:
"Toward the aborigines of the country no one can indulge a more friendly feeling than myself, or would go further in attempting to reclaim them from their wandering habits and make them a happy, prosperous people."
It seems our overall perspective of Native Americans may not have changed in the past 187 years as much as we'd like to think. If only Jackson had Twitter back then.
We'd like to thank the Navajo Code Talkers, the 13 who are still with us, and the hundreds who have walked on, for their heroic, selfless service to our nation, and to their spirit and dedication to the many peoples who do provide what is great about America.
PS: We don't have a photo from the White House event honoring the Navajo Code Talkers because they appear to only be available from Getty Images, for around $600. Our budget does not allow for such extravagances. Our apologies.
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