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Even by the warped standards of 2017, this has been a crazy news week. With North Korea’s most recent missile test, the firings of Matt Lauer and Garrison Keilor, and the breathless drama surrounding the tax bill, it’s difficult to believe that President Trump’s “Pocahontas” remark was a mere 48 hours ago.

In yesterday’s post, Erin wrote about the larger issues of defining American Indian identity.

There’s a second issue here that should not be lost. While Trump may have set a particularly low bar on Monday, many of his predecessors struggled — albeit less dramatically — to discuss the U.S. government’s history with Native Americans (indeed, the only exception to this seems to have been President Obama, who matched frank rhetoric with supportive policies).

Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush all had at least one moment in their presidency when they could address issues related to Indians, as President Trump did this week. The first President Bush proclaimed Native American Heritage Month in November of 1990. President Clinton held a major meeting of Indian leaders at the White House in 1994. He invited the heads of all federally recognized tribes, and though not were able to accept, attendance numbered in the hundreds.A decade later, George W. Bush presided over the dedication of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.


Each President had the opportunity to speak at their respective event. Their remarks shared some common, and regrettable, elements.

First, all three men glossed over the brutal treatment of Indians by the European colonists and, later, the federal government. George H.W. Bush noted the “special relationship” between the federal government and “Indian tribes,” which he observed had persisted despite “conflict, iniquities, and changes over the years.” Clinton offered a tepid acknowledgment that “our history has not always been a proud one” but quickly looked to the future. Bush’s son did a little better at avoiding euphemisms, at least making passing reference to “great injustice against native peoples.”

Second, all three presidents spoke favorably of Native Americans, but their emphasis tended to focus on a few outstanding individuals. Sacajawea’s guidance of Lewis and Clark was mentioned by both Bush 41 and 43. The younger Bush invoked the Navajo Code Talkers. His father mentioned Charles Curtis, the Vice President under Herbert Hoover. Curtis was descended from an Indian family. Because his speech was less commemorative and more policy-focused, Clinton did not invoke as many famous names. But he credited Indians collectively with an environmental consciousness that made them exemplary citizens.

Clinton’s rhetoric speaks to the third, and perhaps most troubling, common feature of presidential rhetoric about Indians. Both Presidents Bush and President Clinton all praised Native Americans — but only for things that had contributed to white society. George H.W. Bush lauded Indians’ abilities of “hunting, tracking, and farming,” which were “knowledge and skills that would one day prove to be invaluable to traders and settlers from Europe.” Clinton noted that “so much of who we are today comes from who you have been for a long time,” and suggested that Indians could help the rest of society become more aware of environmental issues. George W. Bush, while quick to argue that native peoples weren’t “vanishing Americans,” mustered support for that claim by highlighting all of the ways Indians contributed to the rest of society.

The central takeaway from all three presidents seems to be that they would discuss Native Americans only if they could avoid the worst episodes of history, emphasize exemplary figures, and focus primarily on what Indians had done for white Americans.

As Erin wrote yesterday:

Critiquing Trump for his use of the term “Pocahontas” is easy; it’s a clear racial slur, and many of us can unequivocally state that we’d never do such a thing. Examining the ways that he draws on broader stereotypes about the (a)historical nature of Native Americans might be much harder for many of us.

The same is true for our leaders. It’s easy to lambaste Trump’s use of the racial slur and horrible optics of honoring American Indians in front of a portrait of Andrew Jackson. But beneath the surface level absurdity lies a more deeply embedded rhetoric that has long been part of the presidency.