It wasn’t lost on L. Jace Killsback that President Donald Trump chose an offensive Indian stereotype to disparage Senate Democrat Elizabeth Warren. Nor was it lost on Killsback that his senator, Jon Tester, was sitting two seats left of the president, but said nothing.

Trump derogatorily referred to Warren as Pocahontas, racially offensive because it conjures up images of American Indian women as sexual objects, while also ignoring that the real Pocahontas, according to Jamestowne National Park Service historians, was taken like property by white colonists in the early 1600s and converted to Christianity.

Killsback is president of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe of southeast Montana.

“What she represents is what we call, in the Indian community, the white man’s view of native women. It’s a reflection of their view of the land in relation to their colonization of the North Americans and includes the capture, the rape, the abuse of Pocahontas,” the president said.

A 'tarnished' historical figure

There’s also a Pocahontas stereotype of American Indian women who are considered too friendly to whites, as the Powhatan girl in colonial storytelling is portrayed as helpful to whites. In those stories, Pocahontas is also portrayed as part of a native monarchy, which is also false, Killsback said. The Disney cartoon version of Pocahontas as a princess is equally offensive.

Walter Fleming, head of the Native American Studies department at Montana State University, said the Pocahontas stereotype puts American Indian women in a position of being not only overly friendly to whites, but also overly lascivious depending on how the slur is used. The historical figure has been so tarnished, association with the name for American Indian women is a no-win situation.

Warren has been called Pocahontas by Republicans since 2012 when the Massachusetts senator’s claims of being one-thirty-second Comanche turned out to be impossible to prove. Supporters of Warren’s opponent, Republican Scott Brown, called her “Fauxcahontas,” a fake, but the phrasing was lost in the political churn against Warren, who is wildly popular among Democrats and a possible presidential candidate in 2020.

Warren’s claim to Cherokee lineage, as well as who gets to decide whether a person is native, is yet another controversy. The decision would not belong to Warren, but certainly would not belong to her detractors, either, Killsback said. It should be up to the Comanche.

Speaking up

Killsback and other native leaders in Montana told The Gazette that Trump’s remarks needed to be challenged. Anytime the racist remark is made people need to speak up, they said.

Tester would not answer questions about the interaction with Trump. He wouldn’t explain why he said nothing. Right after the meeting, which was a luncheon between the president, six Democrat senators and four Republican senators, Tester described the meeting as non-confrontational.

"Don’t take this the wrong way, but it wasn’t confrontational at all," Tester said at a press conference. "It was just flat non-confrontational. It was very open conversation, very, very much, very much an open dialogue. He did more talking than everybody else and Vice President (Mike) Pence did less talking than everybody else. But everybody in that meeting had the opportunity to visit with the president directly, and I appreciate that."

'A cop-out'

Later, Tester’s staff acknowledged Trump’s offensive remarks, as well as the president’s assertions of mass voter fraud against him in the 2016, something that’s been widely declared false. Tester’s staff suggested Trump didn’t need to be called out because the president had made them previously.

“These were not new statements from President Trump,” said Marnee Banks, Tester’s press secretary. “He has routinely called Sen. Warren this derogatory name dating back to May last year. Also, President Trump has made unfounded claims of voter fraud since before the 2016 election and continues to offer no evidence to back these claims up. Jon is deeply concerned that the President repeats offensive rhetoric and untrue statements.”

Killsback disagreed. "That's a cop-out," the Northern Cheyenne president said. "We have to be able to say enough is enough and call the kettle black if you are there. There needs to be an effort to represent the diversity of your constituents. We need that voice to let it be known that it's not acceptable."

The president's comments angered Irene Dale, a member of the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes.

"It can make you feel like you're worth nothing, I guess," Dale said. "That you're not equal. You're not on an equal playing field as the person saying that." 

Dale, who has twice voted for Tester, wanted the senator to explain why he didn't call the president out for being offensive. She posed the question to Tester during the senator's Facebook forum last week. Dale said she presented her question at least a day ahead of the forum, but hers wasn't among the questions the senator chose to answer on video the evening of Feb. 15.

"I still think you put your big boy pants on, go into that meeting, act like a man and say something when someone says something offensive to you," Dale said. 

For Vernon Finley, chairman of the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes of Northwest Montana, there is an obligation to tell the president that his remarks were offensive, while also recognizing Trump’s right to say offensive things.

“You know, sometimes I might do or say things that would be offensive to you for whatever reason, your ethnic background or your gender, or whatever,” Finley said. "I might say or do something offensive, but my intent is to never do that.

“If I say something that offends you and you don’t say anything, that’s on you. If you tell me it’s offensive and I continue to say it, that’s on me,” Finley said.

Double standard

The context of the Trump’s remarks about Warren involve not only Tester, Finley said, but also Montana’s Republican Sen. Steve Daines.

Trump brought up Warren while referring to a Feb. 7 episode on the Senate floor in which the Massachusetts Democrat was gaveled down by Montana Republican Steve Daines.

Warren was speaking against the confirmation of Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions to become attorney general. Daines was overseeing the debate and ordered Warren to take her seat after she began to read from a 1986 letter by Coretta Scott King, in which the civil rights leader said Sessions had undermined the rights of black voters.

Daines cited Rule 19, a not-often-referenced conduct order that prevents senators from impugning each other on the Senate floor.

Warren’s right to free speech should have prevailed, Finley said, criticizing Daines for doing otherwise.

So the tribal chairman found fault in Tester for not speaking truth to power and Daines for not allowing Warren to speak at all.

Dale agreed with Finley. And she saw sexism in they way male Democrats were allowed to read the same King letter that got Warren ejected from the debate. Daines wasn't in charge of the floor session during those later readings. The double standard was still objectionable.


Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.