Donald Trump repeatedly mocked Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., as “Pocahontas” at a press conference in North Dakota on Thursday, even as a Native American woman present at the event interrupted to call his comments “offensive.”
“That’s very offensive. Sorry,” the woman said.
“Is that offensive? You tell me,” Trump asked.
The woman replied that she was offended, and Trump quickly repeated the phrase.
“Oh, oh really — oh, I’m sorry about that,“ Trump said before turning to a reporter who had asked about Warren, immediately using the term again. “Pocahontas. Is that what you said?”
Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has previously used the term to refer to Warren as an allusion to a controversy over her past claims of Native American ancestry. Warren listed herself as a minority when she worked as a faculty member at a pair of Ivy League law schools in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Though she reportedly is 1/32 Cherokee, that would not qualify her to be a member of the tribe. The issue made headlines during Warren’s 2012 election campaign and she defended herself by claiming her “family stories” held that they had Native American roots.
Warren has launched several attacks against Trump in recent weeks. A reporter at the North Dakota press conference began to ask Trump about how Warren “seems to have made it her job” to take him on. Trump cut in as soon as Warren’s name was mentioned.
“Who? Pocahontas?” Trump asked.
His comment elicited laughs from the audience before Nicole Robertson cut in and called it “offensive.” In a conversation with Yahoo News, Robertson said she was not “surprised” by Trump’s comment or his decision to “further offend” after she interrupted.
“His record has been bad in terms of, you know, speaking about other indigenous people across the border. … Mexicans. … They are indigenous to their country. And we didn’t have borders back in the day on the continent, you know, we were all indigenous people that were roaming freely in what is now Canada, the US, and Mexico,” Robertson said.
Robertson, who described herself as a member of the Cree Nation, also alluded to Trump’s German ancestry.
“He has to remember what land he’s on. He came from another country. In fact, he’s an immigrant, as far as I’m concerned. You know, everyone that isn’t Native American, Native Canadian or indigenous … to North America all came from somewhere,” Robertson explained. “I’m not being racist when I say that. I’m just stating a fact.”
Trump held his press conference before making an energy policy speech at a petroleum conference. Robertson, who described herself as a communications specialist and activist, said she was attending to work with a group of Native American tribes who own land in the state that contains natural gas
deposits. Before interrupting Trump, Robertson asked if he planned to work with tribes on “a nation-to-nation basis” if he becomes president. Trump answered that he would “look at” the issue. Robertson said she was not “satisfied” with Trump’s answer.
Robertson described the questions about Warren’s claims regarding Native American ancestry as “totally separate” from the issue of whether Trump’s use of the word “Pocahontas” is appropriate.
“People still have stereotypes of indigenous people, and calling a Native American woman ‘Pocahontas’ by any means is not doing us any justice. In fact, it’s putting us back into the Dark Ages,” Robertson said.
Pocahontas is the name of a well-known Native American historical figure. She was a member of a tribe based where English colonists landed in present-day Virginia during the 17th century. She married a colonist and returned with him to England, where she was presented as a “civilized savage.” In modern times, Pocahontas has appeared in movies and cartoons, often depicted as a scantily clad and attractive woman.
Amanda Blackhorse, a Navajo social worker and activist, described the phrase “Pocahontas” as a “hypersexualized sort of stereotype” in a conversation with Yahoo News. Blackhorse also pointed to the fact Native American women are more likely to be sexually assaulted by non-native men.
“When non-native men approach native women, they think it’s OK to call them ‘Pocahontas’ as a way to kind of say, ‘You’re attractive,’” Blackhorse said. “They use a stereotype to do that and, you know, I’ve experienced that a lot. That’s been my experience with that word. It’s happened a lot, and I know it’s happened to a lot of Native women.”
Blackhorse is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the National Football League’s Washington Redskins that argues that their team name is offensive, and she said Trump’s comments raise similar concerns, because the use of these terms in the public sphere “desensitizes” people to “racism” and hurtful “stereotypes of Native people.”
“This is a problem, and his statements directly perpetuate stuff like that. They make it OK for us to continue to be disrespected in the general community,” Blackhorse said.
Democrats quickly criticized Trump for his comments. PaaWee Rivera, the Democratic National Committee’s director of Native American engagement, released a statement shortly after Trump’s press conference on Thursday.
“Donald Trump does not have the temperament or judgment to be president of the United States, which is why he resorts to racist attacks on those who disagree with him,” Rivera said, later adding, “Americans of all backgrounds deserve a president who fights racism and respects their communities, not one that fans the flames of bigotry and seeks to profit off of the misery of others.”
Trump’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment on this story, but he was clearly undeterred by the criticism. He took to Twitter shortly afterward to argue that Warren herself was “offensive.”
“I find it offensive that Goofy Elizabeth Warren, sometimes referred to as Pocahontas, pretended to be Native American to get in Harvard,” Trump wrote.
In a tweet of her own, Warren retorted that she “didn’t even go to Harvard.” She was a faculty member at the school.
“Get your facts straight,” Warren wrote.