Families of Native American war veterans and politicians from both major US parties have criticised Donald Trump for using a White House event honouring Navajo Code Talkers to take a political jab at a Democratic senator he has nicknamed “Pocahontas”.
The US leader turned to the name he often deployed for Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren during the 2016 presidential campaign to mock her claims about being part Native American.
He told the three Navajo Code Talkers on stage that he had affection for them that he doesn’t have for her.
“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 honouring veterans or any kind of people, he needs to grow up and quit saying things like that.”
Pocahontas is well-known as a Disney princess, but less so for the sacrifices she made to save her people from British forces in the 1600s in present-day Virginia, descendants of her tribal community say.
Whether Mr Trump’s remark constitutes a racial slur depends on who you ask, but most critics agree it was inappropriate.
Ms Warren said Mr Trump’s repeated references to her as “Pocahontas” will not keep her from speaking out.
“Now he seems to think that that’s somehow going to shut me up.” she said.
She added: “He’s wrong. It’s not going to make any difference.”
All he “had to do was make it through the ceremony,” she said. “But that wasn’t possible for Donald Trump. He had to throw in a racial slur.”
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said that she didn’t believe the remark was a racial slur and that “was certainly not the president’s intent.”
Mr Trump made the comment as he stood near a portrait of President Andrew Jackson, which he hung in the Oval Office in January. He is known to admire Jackson’s populism, although he is an unpopular figure in Indian Country because he oversaw the forced removal of American Indians from their southern homelands.
The Navajo Nation suggested Mr 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.”
Its president Russell Begaye said in a statement that “all tribal nations still battle insensitive references to our people.”
He added: “The prejudice that Native American people face is an unfortunate historical legacy.”
Still, Mr Begaye and relatives of Navajo Code Talkers said they’re honoured 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 Mr Trump, also took the opportunity to ask for support for a Navajo Code Talker museum. Mr Trump obliged.
Michael Smith, a Marine whose father was a Code Talker, said most of the Code Talkers would be sceptical 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.”
Michael Nez, whose father helped develop the code based on the Navajo language, said his father would have been upset to hear Mr Trump’s “Pocahontas” comment. But, as other Code Talker relatives said, his father was taught to respect the president as the commander in chief.
“It’s too bad he does put his foot in his mouth,” Mr Nez said. “Why he does it? I don’t know.”
The president has long feuded with Warren, an outspoken Wall Street critic who levelled 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 Senator Scott Brown.
Ms Warren says her parents told her of the Native American connection and she listed herself with that heritage in law school directories to meet others with similar backgrounds.
“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 Senator John McCain, a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, tweeted. “Politicizing these genuine American heroes is an insult to their sacrifice.”