President Trump on Sunday tweeted a clip from Senator Elizabeth Warren’s December 31 Instagram livestream with the caption, “If Elizabeth Warren, often referred to by me as Pocahontas, did this commercial from Bighorn or Wounded Knee instead of her kitchen, with her husband dressed in full Indian garb, it would have been a smash!” Trump’s post had nothing to do with the substance of the video — Warren spent it drinking beer, answering questions from viewers, and describing her New Year’s Eve tradition of watching the 1942 film Casablanca with her husband — but rather sought to exploit what he saw as another opportunity to insult the Massachusetts Democrat, who in December formed an exploratory committee to run for president in 2020.
Broadsides deriding Warren as “Pocahontas” are not new for Trump, who has dedicated at least 16 tweets and parts of several campaign rallies to their pursuit. The inclusion of Little Bighorn and Wounded Knee is new, if surprisingly so — one could argue that the grab bag of incoherent Native American references from which the president draws was incomplete without them. A small outcry ensued nonetheless. Much of it focused, justifiably, on Trump making light of historical events in which hundreds of people lost their lives and, in the case of Wounded Knee, U.S. cavalrymen slaughtered upwards of 150 Lakota men, women, and children in cold blood (some estimates have this number above 300). Less apparent was criticism of the effect the president’s policies have on living Native Americans, for whom his callous and austere governance poses a more immediate threat than does insulting their forebears.
The latest iteration of this threat stems from Trump’s government shutdown, which is now the longest on American record. Initially viewed by his administration as leverage to force congressional Democrats to fund his U.S.-Mexico border wall, the 24-day standoff has both failed to accomplish its goal and resulted in more than 800,000 federal employees being furloughed or forced to work without pay. It has accomplished this by leaving much of the federal government unfunded, in part or in full, including several agencies vital to Americans’ health and safety needs, like the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration. Equally troubling — and less-widely wept over — are reports from many of the country’s Native American reservations, which paint a dire portrait of already-impoverished communities being sapped of their health care, food, and law enforcement resources due to the lack of funding.
A sampling, first from the New York Times:
On the Navajo Nation, a mostly rural reservation of red rock canyon that spans parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, the government shutdown has already been difficult, said Russell Begaye, the Navajo Nation’s president.
A blanket of snow has covered the region, but roads are unplowed because federal maintenance has stopped. Many people are now trapped in their homes, unable to make the 20- or 50-mile journey to buy water, groceries and medicine, said Mr. Begaye.
From ABC News:
In New Mexico, a lone police officer patrolled a Native American reservation [Mescalero Apache] larger in size than Houston on a shift that normally has three people, responding to multiple car wrecks during a snowstorm, emergency calls and requests for welfare checks …
Clara Pratte’s 68-year-old mother had surgery to clear up vision in one of her eyes earlier this month, but the Navajo woman wasn’t able to get a referral from IHS for a follow-up appointment after pressure built up in her eye …
In Washington state, the Seattle Indian Health Board plans to cut services if the federal shutdown continues … Endangered programs include an in-patient treatment center for chemical dependency and a traditional medicine program that incorporates a sweat lodge, storytelling and drumming to help people in recovery, government affairs officer Aren Sparck said.
These and other basic services are funded by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is housed in the Department of Interior and has been decimated by the shutdown to the tune of 2,295 furloughed employees out of 4,057. Of the countless painful ironies of this freeze is one rooted in history — that the very existence of such benefits for Native tribes was originally meant as a trade-off for the vast swaths of land the U.S. government acquired from them over the centuries. “The federal government owes us this: We prepaid with millions of acres of land,” Aaron Payment, the chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, told the Times. “We don’t have the right to take back that land, so we expect the federal government to fulfill its treaty and trust responsibility.” The shutdown is costing Payment’s tribe roughly $100,000 per day in services undelivered, the Times adds, including money that would normally go toward keeping local health clinics staffed.
Trump is totally uninterested in easing up on Warren, who has for years claimed Native American heritage and sought to prove it by taking a DNA test last year. Warren’s decision drew rebuke from progressives and some Native tribes, including the Cherokee Nation: “Sovereign tribal nations set their own legal requirements for citizenship, and while DNA tests can be used to determine lineage, such as paternity to an individual, it is not evidence for tribal affiliation,” Chuck Hoskin Jr., the tribe’s secretary of state, said in October. The issue of what metrics determine Native heritage is well worth taking up. It is also not an issue with which Trump is actually concerned. Shutdown aside, the president’s record regarding Native peoples is marked by hundreds of millions of dollars in proposed budget cuts to the Bureaus of Indian Affairs and Education. These proposed cuts have been frequently overridden by bipartisan efforts in Congress, but the message from the White House is clear: One need not look as far back as Wounded Knee, Little Bighorn, or the Virginia colonies to find reason for outrage at the president’s racist insults. Trump’s policies do more than enough of the heavy lifting, and they are taking shape as we speak.