Balint: At the very center of the story

When I submitted the first draft of my history MA thesis to my advisor in graduate school, she had a simple question, "Where are the native people in this story?" I was completing my research on the Indian Claims Commission — a body created by Congress in 1946 to try to resolve all the outstanding land claims cases for which Native Americans sought redress from the federal government for broken treaties. There were many problems with the ICC, including this big one: many native groups rightly did not want money for their land; they wanted their land returned. The ICC did not offer this as an option.

One of the other glaring problems with the commission was that all the testimony was given by non-native "experts"; anthropologists, ethnographers, lawyers, historians and government officials offered the testimony on both sides. Although I thought I'd focused on native people and their plight, I'd unwittingly written my thesis without them at the very center of their story.

Justifiably, my advisor ripped it to shreds and sent me back to the drawing board. I remembered this powerful experience as I stared at the Washington Post headline: "Trump refers to `Pocahontas' during ceremony to honor Navajo code talkers." The Pocahontas that President Trump referred to is Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. Although many had already criticized the president for using that slur during the election season, it was still shocking to see him use it in the presence of Dineh (Navajo) World War II heroes. It was supposed to be their moment; he couldn't even give them a moment. They weren't at the center of the story.

Whether you believe Senator Warren intentionally fabricated her Native American heritage or genuinely believed erroneous family lore, it doesn't change the glaringly obvious: this ceremony was not the place for political pot shots. It was a time to honor the Dineh code talkers — symbolic of the 44,000 Native Americans who served in the U.S. military in WW II. Navajo Nation Council Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty said it best: "The Navajo Code Talkers are not pawns to advance a personal grudge, or promote false narratives. Such pandering dishonors the sacrifice of our national heroes."

Many Native Americans fought for the United States before they were even allowed to vote. Congress had reaffirmed Native people's citizenship with the Nationality Act of 1940, but thousands returned home after the war and were still prevented from voting. Although the 15th Amendment barred states from using race to disenfranchise voters, states used other means to prevent Native Americans from voting: asserting they were not truly residents if they lived on reservations; demanding that tribal ties be cut in order to vote; and arguing they were "wards of the state" or were ineligible to vote because they didn't pay taxes.

I looked at those elderly men, standing in front of the portrait of Andrew Jackson that Trump had installed in the Oval Office shortly after he took office. Jackson — dubbed "Sharp Knife" by the Creek and "Indian Killer" by the Cherokee — was responsible for the horrible Trail of Tears and Indian Removal Act. I thought of all the injustices native peoples have endured for hundreds of years.

Here they were, incredible survivors, finally about to receive a small, long overdue acknowledgement and thanks. But Trump couldn't yield the stage to the native people at the center of story. I hope the embarrassing spectacle he created is the last gasp of a dying era. Whether Trump understood the symbolism is an open question. Yet, I'm grateful that a weary nation still had the fight to push back.

Becca Balint writes from Brattleboro on history, politics and culture. She currently serves as Senate Majority Leader in the Vermont Legislature. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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