By Felicia Fonseca and Laurie Kellman
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Families of Navajo war veterans who were honored at the White House Monday say they were dumbfounded that President Donald Trump used the event to take a political jab at a Massachusetts senator, demeaning their work with an unbreakable code that helped the U.S. win World War II.
Trump turned to a nickname he often deployed for Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren during the 2016 presidential campaign: Pocahontas. He then told the three Navajo Code Talkers on stage Monday that he had affection for them that he doesn’t have for Warren.
The president has long feuded with Warren, an outspoken Wall Street critic who leveled blistering attacks on Trump during the campaign. Trump seized on questions about Warren’s heritage, which surfaced during her 2012 Senate race challenging incumbent Republican Sen. Scott Brown.
Warren said in an interview on MSNBC that, unfortunately, Trump cannot make it through a ceremony honoring heroes “without having to throw out a racial slur.”
“It was uncalled for,” said Marty Thompson, whose great-uncle was a Navajo Code Talker. “He can say what he wants when he’s out doing his presidential business among his people, but when it comes to honoring veterans or any kind of people, he needs to grow up and quit saying things like that.”
Pocahontas is a well-known historical figure who bridged her own Pamunkey Tribe in present-day Virginia with the British in the 1600s. But the National Congress of American Indians says Trump wrongly has flipped the name into a derogatory term, and the comment drew swift criticism from American Indians and politicians.
“Our nation owes a debt of gratitude to the Navajo Code Talkers, whose bravery, skill & tenacity helped secure our decisive victory over tyranny & oppression during WWII,” Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, tweeted Tuesday. “Politicizing these genuine American heroes is an insult to their sacrifice.”
When asked about criticism of Trump’s remarks, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said a racial slur “was certainly not the president’s intent.”
The Navajo Nation suggested Trump’s remark was an example of “cultural insensitivity,” and they resolved to stay out of the “ongoing feud between the senator and President Trump.”
“All tribal nations still battle insensitive references to our people. The prejudice that Native American people face is an unfortunate historical legacy,” Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said in a statement.
Still, Begaye and relatives of Navajo Code Talkers said they’re honored the story of the men recruited from the vast Southwest reservation to become Marines could be told on a national stage. Peter MacDonald, a former Navajo chairman and trained Code Talker, who stood beside Trump, also took the opportunity to ask for support for a Navajo Code Talker museum. Trump obliged.
MacDonald didn’t return messages left Monday by The Associated Press. He didn’t visibly react to Trump’s “Pocahontas” comment and later told the president he was certain he would succeed, crediting military generals.
Michael Smith, a Marine whose father was a Code Talker, said most of the Code Talkers would be skeptical about going to the White House because it could be construed to mean they support a political cause.
“So, why did they go? Why were they there? He’s putting them in the Oval Office to say ‘You did a good job, and say hi to Pocahontas?'” Smith said. “They should be taken care of as heroes, not as pawns.”
Democratic New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall, vice chairman of the Indian Affairs committee, added: “Donald Trump’s latest racist joke — during Native American Heritage Month, no less — demeaned the contributions that the Code Talkers and countless other Native American patriots and citizens have made to our great country.”