Native Americans have taken to social media to criticize President Donald Trump for using a racial slur during a Monday White House ceremony honoring Fleming Begaye, Thomas Begay, and Peter MacDonald, three of the 13 Navajo Code Talkers still living.
“I just want to thank you because you’re very, very special people,” Trump said to the men who were recruited into the U.S. Marine Corps to transmit tactics and vital information in a language that was then incomprehensible to America’s World War II enemies.
WATCH: Trump comments to honorees
“You were here long before any of us were here — although we have a representative in Congress who they say was here a long time ago. They call her Pocahontas. But you know what? I like you. Because you are special,” Trump continued, touching MacDonald on the shoulder.
Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye described the incident as part of an “ongoing feud” between Trump and Elizabeth Warren, over her claims to have Native American heritage during her Senate campaign.
“In this day and age, all tribal nations still battle insensitive references to our people. The prejudice that Native American people face is an unfortunate historical legacy,” Begaye said. “As Native Americans, we are proud people who have taken care of this land long before there was the United States of America and we will continue to fight for this Nation.”
Navajo Nation Council delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty cited the event as the "latest example of systemic, deep-seated ignorance” about Native Americans.
"The Navajo Code Talkers are not pawns to advance a personal grudge or promote false narratives,” Crotty said in a statement released Monday. “Such pandering dishonors the sacrifice of our national heroes."
Dine Code Talkers secretary Debra Klecan posted on Facebook that the White House ceremony was the first time she had ever heard disparaging comments made against the Code Talkers.
“I’ve seen men and women of all ages break down in tears in honor and in awe of meeting them in person and they subsequently share their personal or family stories about how the Code Talkers affected their lives. It is too bad the president of the United States cannot do the same.”
In a personal Facebook message to Trump, Marty Thompson, whose great uncle Dennie Housteen was a Navajo Code Talker, demanded an official apology.
“There were three… Navajo Code Talkers standing and sitting with pride and dignity next to you. But, you Honor and Respect them with a…racist, derogatory comment about Pocahontas. Do you even know the true Pocahontas?” Thompson asked.
Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians, issued the following statement Monday:
“Today was about recognizing the remarkable courage and invaluable contributions of our Native code talkers. That’s who we honor today and everyday – the three code talkers present at the White House representing the 10 other elderly living code talkers who were unable to join them, and the hundreds of other code talkers from the Cherokee, Choctaw, Comanche, Lakota, Meskwaki, Mohawk, Navajo, Tlingit, and other tribes who served during World Wars I and II.”
Keel also called on the president to refrain from invoking Pocahontas in a way that “denigrates the legacy” of the 17th century Pamunkey woman, born Matoaka, who is credited with helping foster relations between Virginia tribes and early British colonizers.
"As a Marine Vet myself, I am keenly aware of how great a sacrifice these Navajo Marines made to the war effort," said Ray Cook, former op/ed editor of Indian Country Today Media Network. "There is something basically wrong that a man would on one hand hand praise Native veterans and, on the other and in the same breath, denounce another person with a claimed Native background with a racial slur that is derogatory to Natives."
Native Americans observers were quick to note that Monday’s ceremony took place beneath a portrait of Andrew Jackson, the seventh U.S. president and architect of the policy that forcibly drove thousands of Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole tribe members from their homes to the West. Along the way, thousands died of cold, disease or hunger.
And as if all this weren’t insult enough, Oglala Lakota journalist and Native Sun News Today publisher Tim Giago cited Trump’s tone of voice.
“He talked down to Peter MacDonald and the other brave Navajo as if they were children,” he told VOA, expressing fear that this may have detracted from Code Talker Peter MacDonald’s speech.
In his speech, MacDonald urged the creation of a museum commemorating the Code Talkers and preserving their stories for future generations of Americans. And he praised America’s unity and diversity.
“We have different languages, different skills, different talents, and different religion. But when our way of life is threatened, like the freedom and liberty that we all cherish, we come together as one. And when we come together as one, we are invincible.”
White House Spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders, responding to questions from reporters Monday, said she didn't believe calling Warren "Pocahontas" was a slur.
"I don't think that it is [a racial slur] and I don't think that was the President's intent," Sanders said.
"Look, I think that Sen. Warren was very offensive when she lied about something specifically to advance her career. I don't understand why no one's asking about that question and why that isn't constantly covered."