As the Democratic State Party Chair, I’m very proud to have the opportunity to lead our Party here in New Mexico in an important Presidential Election. Part of my job is to ensure that our message reaches voters. Democrats have long held values that are in line with Indian Tribes – we care about the environment, we want citizens to have the safety nets provided for them by law, we work toward a fair and livable wage for all New Mexicans, we push for early childhood education and want every individual to have opportunities that will give them a bright future.
As the first Native American Democratic State Party Chair, I also gave myself an obligation to stand up for our native communities. Because I have experiences that my culture and history have given me, I recognize when Native folks have been Trumped. A case in point is that, soon after Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) forcefully criticized the Republican Presidential Nominee, Donald Trump, about the fact that he pays no federal taxes, and that he rooted for people to lose their homes in the housing crash of 2009, he brushed her off as “Pocahontas.” Mr. Trump ridiculed Senator Warren for identifying as Native American by calling her Pocahontas.
First, I doubt very seriously that Donald Trump is any authority on Native Americans. For example, Elizabeth Warren identifies as Cherokee and Pocahontas is Powhatan. Trump doesn’t understand how or why Native folks choose to identify themselves or how tribes place individuals on their tribal rolls. He may never have heard that tribes have the authority to make their own enrollment laws and be ruled by them.
For centuries Native people were moved. Large numbers were forced to walk, forced on trains, sent to boarding schools thousands of miles from their communities, and sometimes they never went back home. Some absences of tribal members were a great hardship for a tribe to bear, and the systematic attempts at assimilation (and even extermination) caused many tribes to lose things – family heirlooms, land, songs, dances, traditions. We owe a debt of gratitude to our ancestors for not dying off and ultimately to our tribal governments for fighting hard through the years to regain much of what we had lost. I myself feel very fortunate to have my community that I can call home.
Trump’s very use of Pocahontas’ name is disrespectful. The story of Pocahontas is heart-wrenching. Toward the end of her life she left her people, went to England, contracted a disease and died at a very young age. When I think of that story – and the hundreds of sad and disturbing stories of how Native people have suffered throughout history, I can’t imagine making a mockery of their names or their lives. In my culture, we have deep respect for our relatives who have gone before us. It would be an utter disgrace to carry on as Donald Trump has about a Native woman whose life was cut short in a terrible way.
Ignorance is not an excuse. Any presidential candidate should be held to a high standard and being a billionaire doesn’t excuse you. As Americans we are all responsible for learning our collective history and being respectful toward one another.
Senator Warren may not live up to many people’s idea of what an Indian is supposed to look like; however, that is a moot point. No one else has to fill her shoes.
Debra Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, is the chairwoman of the Democratic Party of New Mexico.