By Michael Alvarez Shepard, Ph.D.
Between the mid 1940s and 1960s, over 100 Native American Nations representing more than 12,000 people lost federal tribal recognition (Wilkens and Stark 2010). Called the Indian Termination Era, it represents one of the most damaging periods in the fraught history between the United States and Native American people. Unlike other detrimental social policies like the Indian boarding school movement, the Termination Era is marked by formally revoking tribal political recognition. Federal recognition status is significant for Native people in the US, because a range of economic, legal and political rights depend on it. Those tribes which experienced termination lost capacity for self-governance and access to federal programs for health care, housing, education and more. During this era 2,500,000 acres of Native American territory was also sold, mostly to non-Natives. The Termination Era officially ended over 50 years ago and since that time, some terminated tribes have successfully petitioned for their recognition to be restored.
In this election season we consider the policies and priorities a new president will bring. The candidates are starkly differentiated in demeanor and ideology. Donald J. Trump represents a view of Native American rights to self-determination that fell out of favor almost a generation ago. For the past 30 years, this candidate has consistently advocated an ideology that could usher in a new Termination Era that is more damaging than any before. Fortunately, presidents do not have unilateral power to revoke tribal recognition themselves. However, there is nothing that prevents a president and the government they lead from pursuing policies that defund, destabilize and invalidate tribal governance.
At the time of writing, Trump is down in the polls and appears to have only a slim chance at winning the presidency. However, this candidate and his history of distain for Native American people poses a unique threat worth consideration. There has been no shortage of deeply troubling statements by the GOP nominee. While Trump’s incendiary comments about women, people with disabilities and Latinos have garnered much of the attention, his rhetoric specific to Native Americans has unique implications. Trump has repeatedly questioned the legitimacy of Native American identity, supported derogatory mascot representation and has shown disrespect by calling Elizabeth Warren ‘Pocahontas.’ Trump regularly excuses his behavior saying, “It’s only just words,” whether he’s bragging of sexual assault or encouraging physical violence toward Secretary Clinton. It is doubtful that Trump’s inflammatory statements belie his policy objectives, given the consistency of his remarks. These ‘words’ not only have direct policy implications if acted upon, but also legitimize racist undercurrents of society.
With Trump as a major party candidate, racism and prejudice have found a national spotlight and validation. A recent BBC interview with outspoken white supremacist, Richard Spencer, confirms that people who would happily return to eras of overt, state sanctioned racism are empowered by Trump’s rhetoric. In the interview, Mr. Spencer states, “Donald Trump came along and I feel like my movement and ideology . . . can be a kind of vanguard for a presidential candidate.” Once on the margins of society, Trump’s candidacy has re-normalized blatant prejudice and given racist movements credibility. Trump’s statements about Native Americans are also indicative of his policy intentions. I focus on one of Trump’s statements about Native Americans to explore implications of his rhetoric for federal recognition, self-determination and cultural representation.
“They don’t look like Indians to me”
In 1993 Trump testified at a House Native American Affairs committee hearing in relation to a lawsuit he brought against the federal government. Trump claimed that the Native owned Foxwoods Casino had an unfair advantage over his Atlantic City casinos and discriminated against him, while privileging “a very limited class of citizens” (King 1993). Trump lost the lawsuit, because Native Americans are recognized uniquely by the federal government and their treaty rights create long standing “special trust status” for recognized tribes. At the hearing Mr. Trump got into a heated discussion with, then California Congressmen, George Miller. It was during that exchange that Trump said, “They don’t look like Indians to me . . . They don’t even look like Indians to Indians.” Trump’s comments were specifically directed to the Mashantucket Pequots, the small Connecticut tribe which opened Foxwoods a few years after passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988. By questioning the validity of Native American identity, Trump puts tribal recognition in jeopardy. Trump’s statements also highlight the delicate balance tribes navigate as they maintain the cultural and political factors which affirm tribal recognition.
While it may be reprehensible for a wealthy white man from a privileged family to question a person’s indigeneity based on their appearance, that is only part of the problem. With his statement, Trump is asserting that Native Americans must look, act or speak in ways that fit his normative expectations. Trump is relying on stereotypical depictions of Native people, that assume modern Native people look identical to their ancestors from hundreds of years ago. It is fundamentally problematic for people of a dominant culture to dictate how cultural minorities should look, dress, speak or act – particularly since the federal government actively supported cultural assimilation of Native people for decades. Native Americans are acutely aware of outside cultural expectations, because their colonizer has defined them through books, film, fashion and television for centuries (Huhndorf 2001). The expectation that Native Americans demonstrate stereotypical traits or features are troubling because of Trump’s underlying argument.
What Trump is really arguing is that those Native people who opened the Foxwoods casino are not Native enough to qualify for their unique rights. Unfortunately for Native Americans, capacity to operate casinos and a range of other rights, is dependent on tribal status. Accordingly, Native people face unique pressures to maintain and demonstrate unique cultural identity. If Trump is asserting that assimilation has already been so complete that the Mashantucket Pequots don’t look Native to him anymore, then it opens wide the door for a return to Termination Era policies. The Indian Termination Era is predicated on the notion that Native people should be culturally and legally assimilated. For Native people the prospect of tribal unrecognition is alarming for a range of reasons no other ethnic minority must consider. For example, if Trump were to tell me that I don’t look Puerto Rican, I might take offence, but understand that the Caucasian half of my heritage is outwardly dominant. If Trump’s administration was to find that I lack ethnic minority status, it does not substantially dictate my ability to access health care, housing, education, employment or resources. However, for Native Americans the implications of losing federal recognition are highly consequential. Unlike any other cultural group in the US, recognized Native American identity confers access to the fiduciary obligations the federal government made when signing treaties.
Determining Native American identity is contentious. Every tribe has ability to regulate how tribal enrollment is determined, including use of blood quantum and census records. However, the US Congress retains unilateral authority to alter or abrogate treaties and tribal recognition. Congress has revoked tribal recognition before and there is every indication that they could be compelled to do so again. According to Native Law Professor, Robert Odawi Porter, federal policy for Native Americans runs in a cycle, from antagonistic to supportive (Porter 2007). Since the 1970s the government has mainly encouraged tribal self-determination and the Obama administration has worked to support a productive government-to-government relationship with tribes. A Trump presidency could usher in a new cycle of relations with tribes where their identity and the rights it affords, are again in question.
The president alone does not likely have authority to unrecognized a tribe, but as during the Termination Era, a president can direct Congress to investigate tribal status. A president can also influence the funding and directives of agencies that have implications for tribes, such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Indian Health Services and the Army Corps of Engineers. Today, tribes are engaging in increasingly high profile opposition to development projects they see infringing upon their rights. One example is the Lummi Nation’s opposition to the largest coal export facility on the west coast, the Gateway Pacific Terminal. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s ongoing opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline is another example. The next president will have no shortage issues to decide that directly impact Native people, their lands and priorities. Trump’s rhetoric is dangerous because of past detrimental federal policies, like the Termination Era. Trump’s statements are also an opportunity to consider the cultural and political implications of how and why Native American identity is determined.
Trump states that his words are not akin to his actions, but the consistency and prevalence of his statements indicates differently. The argument that they are only words rings especially hollow for Native Americans. The 600+ treaties signed between the federal government and the original inhabitants of this country are also ‘only just words.’ Native treaties have been broken and altered countless times since the mid 1700s. We need a president that affirms that the US will respect and enforce treaties, not one that will advocate their invalidation. In that 1993 hearing Congressmen Miller rebukes Trump’s assertion that Native people must look a certain way by stating, “Thank God that’s not the test of whether people in this country have rights or not, whether or not they pass your look test.” Miller states that these same tests have been applied to other ethnic minorities with troubling consequences. Sociopolitical rights are tied to cultural identity for Native Americans in ways that no other minority experiences. It is our responsibility to ensure that Mr. Trump’s antiquated and dangerous views on identity, cultural performance and indigeneity do not become the test which people must meet.
Michael Alvarez Shepard, Ph.D.
Goucher College Master’s in Cultural Sustainability Program
Huhndorf, Shari. 2001. Going Native. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
King, Wayne. 1993. Trump, in a federal lawsuit, seeks to block Indian casinos. In, The New
York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/1993/05/04/nyregion/trump-in-a-federal-lawsuit-seeks-to-block-indian-casinos.html. Accessed October 16, 2016.
Porter, Robert Odwai. (2006). American Indians and the new Termination Era. Cornell Journal
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Wilkins, David E, and Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark. 2010. American Indian politics and the
American political system. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.