Trump's 'Pocahontas' remark draws sharp criticism in New Mexico | KOB 4
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Trump's 'Pocahontas' remark draws sharp criticism in New Mexico

Caleb James
November 29, 2017 10:51 AM

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- An Oval Office ceremony meant to honor some of the last surviving Navajo Code Talkers got a lot of attention on Monday, but for all the wrong reasons. 

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President Donald Trump used the moment to reignite a feud with U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, calling her "Pocahontas." Despite White House denials that the president's use of the term amounted to a racial slur, leaders in New Mexico's native communities tell KOB that's exactly what it was. 

Monday morning's ceremony began the way anyone might expect -- with praise. Trump presented accolades to three of the 13 surviving Navajo Code Talkers, military recruits instrumental in fooling American enemies during World War II by using their native language to relay battle strategy and other communications. One of those men is Tom Begay from New Mexico. 

Then Trump took a sharp left turn and went off script. 

"We have a representative in Congress who they say was here a long time ago, they call her 'Pocahontas,'" Trump said of Warren, D-Mass.

MORE: Trump, honoring Navajos, revives 'Pocahontas' jab at Warren

Trump has referred to Warren as Pocahontas in the past. The moniker initially referenced Warren's use of "Native American" to describe her heritage in a directory of law professors. "It's dishonoring and it's so degrading," said Tiayrra Curtis. 

Curtis is also Navajo. At the University of New Mexico she's president of Kiva Club, a Native American student group.  She called Trump's comments dishonoring and degrading. 

"I feel he's very inconsiderate and lacking knowledge of the way we live and the way we have lived for thousands of years," Curtis said.  

There may be no better example of that lack of knowledge, Curtis said, than the chosen backdrop for the president's remarks Monday. Behind the president and his guests hung a portrait of Andrew Jackson. The seventh president signed the Indian Removal Act of 1870, commonly known as the Trail of Tears. The legislation led to mass displacement and death. 

"In my culture, of course, we honor our ancestors. We would never say a disparaging remark about anyone who's passed on before us," said Deb Haaland, who is running for Congress. "And yet he very casually does that." 

Haaland's ancestry is rooted in New Mexico's Laguna Pueblo. She is running for the U.S. House of Representatives seat vacated by Michelle Lujan Grisham. Haaland said Trump denigrates the actual Pocahontas and her historic legacy -- let alone other Native Americans.

"I don't think that by inviting Code Talkers to the White House and then making disparaging comments about another Native American historic figure is the way to accomplish any type of relationship with Native Americans," she said.  

The president's press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said she didn't consider the use of the term a racial slur. Everyone KOB interviewed for this story, including the American Indian Student Services Director at UNM, disagreed with the assessment. 

When asked for a response to the president's remarks, Republican Party of New Mexico chairman Ryan Cangiolosi sent the following statement: 

"We join the President and all Americans in honoring the Navajo Code Talkers for their heroic service to our country. They played a central role in America's victory over the forces of evil and we will always owe them a debt of gratitude." 

KOB responded to Cangiolosi with clarification of the question specific to the president's remarks about Warren and the station has yet to receive a response. 

Here is more reaction from New Mexico's elected officials:

"The president should study his history. The Native American Code Talkers are true war heroes whose patriotism and honor during World War II helped ensure our victory against oppression and hatred. The Code Talkers gave back to their country by sharing their language even though they were born into a nation that often denied them their most basic civil rights and even when they faced bigotry and injustice in their own lands. Donald Trump’s racist joke – during Native American Heritage Month no less – demeaned the contributions that the Code Talkers and countless other Native American patriots and citizens have made to our great country. This moment in history won’t overshadow the contribution the Code Talkers made and continue to make to our nation. But racist comments like that are never acceptable, and are in especially poor taste against the backdrop of Andrew Jackson’s portrait. The days when the President of the United States was held as a moral authority around the world were over 11 months ago, but at what should have been a solemn ceremony to honor Native veterans, Donald Trump took low even lower."

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M.

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"President Trump owes the Navajo Code Talkers an apology for his demeaning comments during today’s ceremony that was meant to honor American heroes. The President of the United States should not use racial slurs under any circumstance. But to use it during on such a solemn and sacred occasion to recognize veterans who fought for this country is particularly disgraceful."

-- U.S. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M.

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"Today’s racially derogatory remarks by President Trump regarding Senator Warren are mean-spirited, insulting and impossible to interpret as anything other than a slur against an entire people. They are beneath the dignity of the office that Mr. Trump holds and are especially insensitive given the setting in which they were delivered, one designed to honor the Navajo Code Talkers' role in World War II.

"I have met many of the Navajo Nation Code Talkers and their families, and these remarks diminish the heroic role they had in ensuring our nation’s freedom.  It is a sad day in our country when words spoken by the President serve to undermine the Code Talkers place in history."

-- U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M.

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"I can't begin to express how angered I am by the display of ignorance in our White House today. Once again, the President has distilled Native Americans down to a single name - 'Pocahontas' - and all to score political points at a ceremony to honor Navajo Code Talkers, in front of a portrait of President Jackson.

"The President's actions disgrace the history of Pocahontas, Native Americans, Navajo Code Talkers and all Native American Veterans who served and died for this country. His actions not only show his complete disregard for Native Americans, but for all Americans of different racial backgrounds. Disrespectful and hateful speech like this only serves to signal and embolden white supremacist groups tearing this country apart.

"And, he did this to attack progressive U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has taken on the President at every turn. It is not up to President Trump to determine who is Native, and who isn't. When it comes to people of color, his disdain and disrespect has been loud and clear. 

"Senator Warren fights hard on behalf of ordinary people -- speaking truth to power every day. When Donald Trump insults her, he's disrespecting all Americans. He's targeting her because she's so effective taking on big banks, heartless corporations and big-money Republicans. Warren will persist and so will I.  

"This isn't the first time I've taken on Trump, and it won't be the last. Join my campaign for Congress today so I can keep fighting for Native Americans to be heard and respected."

-- Deb Haaland, Congressional candidate and former chair of the Democratic Party of New Mexico

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Caleb James

Copyright 2017 KOB-TV LLC, a Hubbard Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved

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