After 'Pocahontas' Slurs, Trump May Tip Native American Voters Toward Clinton

Harry S. Truman and Bill Clinton are the only Democrats to win the Grand Canyon State since 1945, but a Navajo Nation endorsement and Trump’s baggage could make Hillary Clinton the third.

Pro-Clinton rally in Tampa, Arizona. November 2016.
Justin Sullivan, AFP

PHOENIX – The state of Arizona, where presidential nominees Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are waging a tough battle, is home to the second-largest Native American community in the United States.

Twenty-two tribes live in this swing state, some 5 percent of the population. After Clinton received the blessing of community leaders recently, her campaign staff believes the Native Americanvote will tip the scales in her favor.

As part of the Democratic effort to get the native American vote, Sen. Bernie Sanders was sent to Arizona last month, where he met with Native American leaders. In contrast to Clinton, during the Democratic primaries Sanders devoted considerable time to campaigning among this constituency, even visiting their homes in the western United States.

Brian Snyder/Reuters

In recent months, Sanders has been one of the most prominent politicians supporting Native American opposition to the planned Dakota Access (or Bakken) Pipeline, a struggle that led to a protest by thousands throughout the country last week.

The Native American community in Arizona is considerably smaller than the Hispanic community, which Clinton is counting on to deliver the traditionally Republican state. But Native Americans tend to vote as a bloc and they’ve already determined the course of elections for local office in the past – such as the election of Gov. Janet Napolitano in 2002.

Two weeks ago, Clinton received the endorsement of Russell Begaye, president of the Navajo Nation, a semiautonomous territory that includes parts of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. Some 100,000 Navajo Nation members live in Arizona.

“I believe Hillary Clinton, as president of the United States, will be a strong partner to work with on a government-to-government level,” said Begaye. “In this campaign, she has committed to serving tribal nations through strengthening public safety, combating drugs and alcohol, advocating for access to high quality education, improving Indian health care, and fighting for our Native American veterans.

"As a senator, she continued this effort by cosponsoring legislation to improve Indian health care and tribal colleges. I trust she will respect our treaty and I look forward to working with her administration on a government-to-government basis.”

Navajo Nation Vice President Jonathan Nez also endorsed Clinton, saying she would continue the dialogue with Native Americans launched during the Obama administration, which has “brought our people into the 21st century.”

In response to Begaye’s declaration, Trump sent his son, Donald Trump Jr., to a hastily called rally for the Navajo Nation last Friday, in an effort to reshuffle the deck. In front of 300 people in Shiprock, New Mexico – a town located in Navajo Nation territory – Trump Jr. played on the disappointment of the audience with the U.S. administration.

“I meet so many Americans who are sick of government, sick of false promises, sick of regulations. This campaign from day one has been about failed promises the usual promises, the usual lies. If we put a Trump in the White House, it’s someone who’s not part of this,” Trump Jr. said, according to local paper the Navajo Times.

But Trump Jr. had to contend with his father’s relationship with Native Americans. In general, if the Republican candidate mentioned them at all, it was to disparagingly call Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts) “Pocahontas,” in reference to her heritage.

Clinton referred to this insult during her rally in Arizona last Wednesday. “Imagine a president who insults Native Americans, says organized crime runs rampant on reservations, and mocks Sen. Elizabeth Warren by calling her ‘Pocahontas’ again and again,” Clinton said at a rally in Arizona State University, Tempe.

A few months ago, Native American leaders canceled a planned meeting with Trump at the last minute.

But Trump has a history of incitement against Native Americans that predates the presidential campaign. As with his legal battles against African Americans (to whom he and his father would allegedly refuse to rent apartments during the 1980s), here, too, the tycoon’s financial interests were involved. During the ’90s and ’00s, Trump conducted an aggressive battle against several Native American tribes who wanted to open casinos in the New York area, thinking they posed a threat to his own gambling empire in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

In 1993, Trump sued the U.S. government, arguing that the law that allowed Native Americans to open casinos on their reservations discriminated against him. During congressional hearings on the subject, Trump castigated a tribe that ran a casino in Connecticut and another tribe in New Jersey that was seeking to get official recognition from the administration so it could open a gambling enterprise.

“They don’t look like Indians to me,” Trump told the congressional hearing. He also told radio interviewer Don Imus at the time, “I think I might have more Indian blood than a lot of the so-called Indians that are trying to open up the reservations.”

In 2000, Trump and his colleagues were fined $500,000 and forced to issue a public apology when it was discovered he had paid for ads that portrayed members of the Apache tribe seeking to open a casino in Upstate New York as criminals.

Despite Trump’s difficult history with Native Americans, Republicans can take comfort from the community’s relatively low voter turnout. At Arizona State University, there has been an aid center operating for several months whose objective is to help raise the voting rates within the community - which has had a hard time voting because there aren’t that many polling places on the reservation.

A few days ago, the center opened an around-the-clock hotline to help Native Americans who encounter voting difficulties.