President Donald J. Trump attempted to honor Navajo Code Talkers on Monday, Nov. 26, in the Oval Office.
While the president’s intent was commendable, his language and the image on the wall behind him sent a very different message.
Trump used this special moment to take a dig at one of his political enemies, Sen. Elizabeth Warren. He called her “Pocahontas,” referring to the notion that Warren was born in Oklahoma and claims Native American heritage.
The president’s reference stems from ancestry claims Warren had made in her past that arose during her 2012 Senate campaign. She cited family stories told by her parents and grandparents that indicated she was part Cherokee.
Warren had been listed as a minority in some professional biographies, but when questions were raised during the campaign, she was not able to prove definitively her Native American ancestry.
In addition to this racially insensitive remark, the president chose to honor these Native American veterans in front of a painting of President Andrew Jackson.
Jackson signed the 1830 Indian Removal Act that permitted the relocation of Native Americans from their ancestral homes to Oklahoma.
History knows this unjust action as the Trail of Tears, for which thousands of Native Americans died on the journey.
Prior to becoming president, Gen. Jackson led brutal campaigns against the Creeks in Georgia and Alabama as well as the Seminoles in Florida.
In an attempt to secure lands for white Southern plantation owners, Jackson used his power as a general and president to contribute to the American genocide of its indigenous people.
Trump’s decision to use this special moment honoring Native American heroes as a backdrop to score political points and as a subtle reminder of Anglo-American power are beyond comprehension.
As a Muscogee Creek, whose ancestors were savaged by Jackson and victimized once they arrived in Oklahoma, I am outraged at the president’s words and actions.
The personal hubris it takes to use language and images that dehumanize Native Americans harkens back decades ago when native peoples were called “Savages” and “Redskins.” (Well, some things have not changed.)
When we use language that strikes at human dignity and celebrates individuals that brutally savaged the people you are honoring, we have lost our way as a society.
This scenario reminds me of James’ words, “If any think they are religious and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless” (James 1:26).
The tongue (and other forms of communication) can set ablaze a great forest fire (James 3:5). Therefore, we need to tame our tongues so that we might communicate with grace, mercy, love and hope (James 3:7-10).
People of power and influence should set aside their hubris to embrace and include others different from themselves.
As a Native American person of faith, I know where divisive language can lead.
We need to follow the spirit of the children’s Bible song, “O be careful little mouth what you say. O be careful little mouth what you say. There’s a Father up above, and He’s looking down in love. So, be careful little mouth what you say.”