Trump, Warren, And The Dehumanization Of Native Women
The onslaught of racist and colonizing imagery has been endless.
Since taking center ring of the 2016 Republican presidential circus, Donald Trump has accosted many of his detractors — from women and People Of Color, to Muslims and Disabled people. There has been much criticism from both sides of the aisle about the GOP nominee’s offensive behavior — but virtual silence regarding his repeated racist and misogynistic attacks on Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren’s claims to the Cherokee and Delaware Nations.
And, per usual, it’s Native women who are paying the ultimate price.
Warren’s claims to Native ancestry first debuted in the public consciousness during her 2012 bid for the Massachusetts U.S. Senate seat, when they were unearthed by her opponent, the incumbent Senator Scott Brown. Apparently, throughout the course of her law career, Warren had claimed that she was Cherokee and Delaware. Those claims, however, were revealed to be little more than family lore and the racist stereotype of “high cheekbones.”
At no point in her life has Warren participated in tribal government, cultural activities, or advocated on behalf of Native peoples while serving as the Chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) or in the Senate.
Warren is not a citizen of any of the Cherokee or Delaware Nations. Rebecca Nagle, Cherokee and Founder and Co-Director of FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, told me during an interview:
“For me, my Native identity is my tribal citizenship; I’m a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. It’s who my family is. It’s who my grandma is. It’s who my community is, which is one of the reasons I’m critical of Elizabeth Warren. I think it’s a very interesting way to be Native, to just be Native alone without connection to Native community.”
Never missing an opportunity to bully someone, Trump has taken up Brown’s campaign to expose Warren’s false claims to Native heritage. He has repeatedly referred to Warren as “Pocahontas” and “the Indian” (not to mention “goofy” and “ineffective”).
Despite having Nicole Robertson, a Cree woman, tell him point blank, “That’s very offensive,” he has persisted with this abusive name-calling, going as far as to say that he calls her Pocahontas because “she’s the least productive Senator.”
Howie Carr, conservative radio talk show host and Trump supporter, referred to Warren as “Wonder Squaw” in the Boston Herald before opening with a mimicked Native war cry at a Maine rally for Trump this past June. (There have been numerous derogatory memes of Warren made by Trump supporters.)
In short? The onslaught of racist and colonizing imagery has been endless. Even one of Warren’s supporters obtained the domain rights to Pocahontas.com, which redirects to her campaign page.
Despite all of this, Warren has not addressed the racism and sexism behind Trump’s attacks on Native women via her. Nor has Warren acknowledged the concerns of Native people, in particular the Cherokee or Delaware, when we have expressed our pain and anger over her false claims to us.
The fact that Warren, a white woman, believes she has the right to claim Native nations when it suits her is, in turn, a form of colonization of Native women. As a result, she has been an active agent in our harm at the hands of non-Native men, such as Trump — and that harm is severe.
For one, Trump has completely erased the plights we face as a people due to colonization and racism. Natives’ rates of higher education are the lowest in the nation — only 18.5% have a Bachelor’s degree. Rates of unemployment are also staggeringly high, with the Bureau of Indian Affairs defined Navajo Region faring the worst at 35.2–37%.
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And with his continued use of racist and fetishized imagery, Trump has further dehumanized a people who have suffered — and continue to suffer — a literal and cultural genocide. Most pointedly, his dehumanization is continuing an epidemic of abuse. Put bluntly: One of the greatest dangers to a Native woman’s life is a non-Native man. Such a brutal reality makes Trump’s comments all the more despicable.
Native women suffer the highest rates of violence of any racial group in the U.S. According to the National Institute of Justice 2010 Findings From the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, more than one in three (39.8%) American Indian and Alaskan Native women have experienced violence in the last year and more than four in five (84.3%) have experienced violence in their lifetime. More than one in two (56.1%) Native women have experienced sexual assault in their lifetime.
Pointedly, the vast majority of this violence is interracial, which is an anomaly in the U.S. Ninety-six percent of Native women reported that their sexual assaults were interracial, whereas 91% of non-Hispanic white women reported their assaults were of the same race. The numbers for interracial attacks are similar for every type of violence that Indigenous women in the U.S. face: domestic violence, sexual trafficking, stalking, and murder. On some reservations, Native women are murdered at 10 times the national average.
(It’s important to note that these statistics only reflect American Indian and Alaskan Native women, which does not include Native Hawaiians, who have their own unique struggles as a result of colonialism.)
Trump’s behavior has only added fuel to the fire of the colonialist and misogynistic non-Native men who violate and kill Native women, while also furthering the American public’s racist stereotypes of the “squaw.” When asked why he calls Warren “Pocahontas,” he replied: “It’s because she’s a nasty person, a terrible Senator, and it drives her crazy.”
By this logic, the public is left to assume that being called a Native woman is an insult because being a Native woman is disgusting and deserving of punishment. It is this very mindset and messaging that intensifies the dehumanization and violence we face.
A History Of Violence
Madonna Thunder Hawk, a member of the Oohenumpa band of the Cheyenne River Sioux Nation, Co-Founder of WARN (Women of All Red Nations), and current Tribal Liaison for the Lakota People’s Law Project, explained during our interview:
“Violence against Native women is a historical thing that goes way back to the invasion that first started on the east coast. It’s part of who money people are, especially the men. They’re brought up in that culture, the culture of money and greed. They could say and do whatever they feel like saying and doing. It started then.”
Indeed, a series of oppressive policies have contributed to the bloodshed that Native women have historically experienced and still currently face. Most notably, perhaps, was the 1978 Supreme Court case Oliphant v. Suquamish Tribe.
Oliphant stripped the sovereign rights of tribal governments to prosecute non-Natives who commit crimes on our lands. Mark Oliphant, a white man, assaulted a tribal officer on tribal land. He felt that he shouldn’t be tried for his crime by the local tribal government, however, since he wasn’t Native. The Supreme Court ruled against the Suquamish Nation and sovereignty, and in turn essentially legalized non-Native-perpetrated violence against Natives. The U.S. government, once again, declared open hunting season on Native women, children, and men.
A series of complex federal policies have also stripped tribes of their sovereignty, such that the reporting of sexual assaults varies based on the location of the tribe within the U.S. The FBI or local law enforcement agencies have jurisdiction over sexual assault, murder, disappearance, trafficking, and child abuse (and a range of other crimes) by non-Natives, but they very rarely arrest or prosecute in these cases.
Under the federal 1968 Indian Civil Rights Act, tribal courts have the right to prosecute Natives for crimes committed on our lands, but not for more than a fine of $3,000 and one year in jail. Not only does this further strip tribes of our sovereign rights to govern ourselves and our land, but given that 96% of sexual assaults are perpetrated by non-Native men, it does very little to end violence against Native women.
The U.S. criminal justice system is also entirely different from the traditional ways in which women sought justice within tribes; on a cultural level, sending an abuser to prison may not feel like justice to an Indigenous woman.
In 2013, the federal government reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Through this policy, the government continued its legacy of giving with one hand and taking with the other. VAWA 2013 allowed federally recognized tribes in the continental U.S. and the Metlakatla Indian Community of the Annette Island Reserve in Alaska to prosecute non-Native domestic abusers and those that broke protection orders.
Yet prosecution for sexual assault, murder, trafficking, and child abuse were still off the table. The government also dictated how the jurisdictional process must be conducted and gave non-Native abusers protections that Natives don’t often receive in U.S. courts.
Defendants were given the right to petition the federal courts to challenge tribal convictions, to stay detention, and to a trial by a jury that does not “systematically” exclude non-Natives. It wasn’t until President Obama signed into law the repeal of section 910 on December 18, 2014 that all Alaskan tribes had the 2013 VAWA protections afforded to them.
When A Violent History And The Presidential Election Collide
In his 1993 testimony before the Congressional Subcommittee on Native American Affairs, Trump made multiple inflammatory and disparaging remarks regarding the Connecticut-based Mashantucket Pequots, including a claim that the Pequots “don’t look like Indians to me.” If that wasn’t derogatory enough, he doubled down on his racism, insisting that “organized crime is rampant on reservations,” an accusation that is completely unfounded.
He then went on to say that “there’s no way an Indian Chief is going to tell ‘Joey Killer’ to please get off his reservation.” On this he is correct; because of Oliphant, a litany of existing policy, and the continuing onslaught of new legislation that we are drowning in, we can’t tell the white, raping “Joey Killer” to get off our land.
Nagle, an anti-rape activist, commented that “when I talk to my Native elders about rape, you know what they say, this isn’t our way — this came from Europe.” She believes rape is part and parcel of a culture of domination. “Trump represents that,” she says. “It’s ‘take what I can,’ ‘I’m not going to apologize,’ ‘I can say whatever I want,’ ‘I’m going to do whatever I want.’”
Over the years Trump has had multiple allegations of sexual harassment and assault made against him by underage girls and women — including his ex-wife Ivana Trump — which epitomizes his disdain for half the population. As of June 20, 2016 an anonymous woman known only as “Jane Doe” filed a lawsuit against Trump and Jeffrey Epstein, Trump’s longtime friend and level 3 sex offender, for raping her in 1994 when she was only 13. A “Tiffany Doe” has been listed as a witness to another suit filed in April by another woman accusing Trump of raping her at the age of 13.
There are also the multiple incestuous comments Trump has made about his daughter, Ivanka Trump. In a 2003 interview on the Howard Stern Show he claimed that, “My daughter, Ivanka. She’s six feet tall, she’s got the best body.” On the March 6, 2006 episode of The View, he said that Ivanka has a “very nice figure” and that if “she weren’t my daughter, I’d be dating her.”
One would think that once Trump threw his hat into the presidential ring he would have ceased this blatantly misogynistic behavior, but he’s only marched on. In the September 9, 2015 interview with Rolling Stone he stated “She’s really something, and what a beauty, what a beauty that one. If I weren’t married, and, ya know, her father . . . ”
The irony that Trump uses Pocahontas as a primary insult is not lost on Native women. “Pocahontas as she’s talked about today isn’t a real person . . . When we talk about the white construct of Native identities, Pocahontas is part of that. Even though she was a real person, she’s become this white myth,” Nagle tells me.
Pocahontas, whose real name was Matoaka, met John Smith at the age of 10 or 11 years old. She was taken captive at the age of 17 and held prisoner by the white colonialists until she was married off to John Rolfe as a condition of her release. Matoaka was baptized Christian, renamed Rebecca, and taken to England, where she was paraded around white society as the “noble savage.” She soon died at the young age of 21. Pocahontas’s abuse continues to this day, with Trump throwing her around like a rag doll for his insidious political machinations.
Trump’s running mate is no beacon of hope in regards to racism and sexism, either. Indiana Governor Mike Pence, (R-IN), too, has a long record of using the government to exploit and oppress women and of using Natives for his political gain. The H.R. 3 No Tax Payer Funding for Abortion bill, which Pence sponsored, would have legally redefined rape to only “forcible rape.”
This would have excluded rapes that occurred while unconscious or under threat. In 2014, the state of Indiana cut $1.18 billion to domestic violence programs. This left 601 people — primarily women and children — escaping abusive living situations, without shelter. Pence even used the 1993 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which furthered the rights of Natives to practice our religions without impunity, to push his anti-LGBTQ Two Spirit and woman agenda. To him, Natives are at best political pawns and not at all a community of people to be represented or advocated for.
As Nagle puts it:
“It’s not a coincidence that the same lawmakers, or potential lawmakers, and top candidates that are making these derogatory comments about Native people and Native women are making laws based on those stereotypes that are really harmful to our people . . . You have people like Trump and Warren making a game out of our identity, making a political game out of what it means to be a Native woman in the U.S. in 2016.”
She adds that “the people who are literally in the seat of power can tweet things like ‘Pocahontas,’ without a lot of consequence, and it’s not a coincidence that the laws that they make create a situation of really high violence against Native women.”
Whether it’s Warren or Trump or non-Native men who come onto tribal land to commit atrocious acts of violence against us, the colonization and abuse of Native women continues every day. Despite what many think, Trump is not one isolated, white supremacist on the fringe; he represents the U.S. government and many non-Native men’s views of Native women.
We have endured 526 years of colonialism and genocide in the “Americas.” Genocide never ended. We are experiencing it to this day through the non-Native men who beat, rape, traffic, and kill us. We are experiencing it through a government that refuses to acknowledge our tribal nations’ sovereign right to govern ourselves, our land, water, and destiny. We are experiencing this through white people, such as Senator Warren, who like to play “Indian.” And more dangerously still, we are experiencing this through people like Trump, who literally use us as an insult to bolster themselves in the polls.
Native people have had some gains in the Obama administration, but we are far from where we deserve to be in regards to our rights on this land, our land. There are many ways that we as Indigenous people must address this, one of which is by actively participating in the U.S. government. Madonna Thunder Hawk told me that, “Our ancestors learned to adapt and survive, and that’s why we’re still here . . . They fought. They hung on. They adapted. They survived. And that’s what we gotta do.”
Natives will continue with the business of survival, and the way that this is going to happen is through a reverse adaptation. After centuries of flexibility and re-sculpting ourselves into people who are making it now, we need to take these skills and use them to our advantages.
The transition into politics and government needs to reach beyond our tribal governments. All Natives, urban and reservation based, women and men, must branch beyond tribal/local/state bodies of leadership and extend our reach to the federal government. This is the ultimate adaptation for survival, especially for our women. And it is the only way to make the fakers and takers like Warren and Trump stop spilling the blood of Native women.