(CBS NEWS/AP) - Families of Navajo war veterans who were honored Monday at the White House and Native Americans say President Donald Trump's political jab at an event for the veterans was uncalled for and denigrating.
Trump took a jab at Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren by calling her "Pocahontas". He then told three Navajo Code Talkers on stage that he had affection for them that he doesn't have for Warren. Trump has a history of publically calling his critics mocking and belittling names. "Pocahontas" comes from Warren's belief that she's of Native American ancestry and 2012 political attacks that asserted those claims were falsely used to gain power and influence. Neither side's claim has ever been proven or substantiated.
Regardless of the history, was this the time or place?
"It was uncalled for," said Marty Thompson, whose great uncle was a Navajo Code Talker. "He can say what he wants when he's out doing his presidential business among his people, but when it comes to honoring veterans or any kind of people, he needs to grow up and quit saying things like that."
Lupita Holiday, daughter of a code talker from St. Geroge, Utah told CBS News that it appeared that the president "doesn't know the history" of the Native peoples.
"Maybe he doesn't know we're different tribes and he might have been here a long time ago but I don't know," said Holiday. She added, saying the name was "a little offensive" to her, "Look at the history of Pocahontas and maybe find out what she did and then find out what the code talkers did. It's two different things. Two different tribes."
Trump made the comment as he stood near a portrait of President Andrew Jackson, which he hung in the Oval Office in January. Trump admires Jackson's populism. But Jackson is an unpopular figure in Indian Country because his policies led to the forced removal of American Indians out of their southern homelands.
The Navajo Nation suggested Trump's remark Monday was an example of "cultural insensitivity" and resolved to stay out of the "ongoing feud between the senator and President Trump."
"All tribal nations still battle insensitive references to our people. The prejudice that Native American people face is an unfortunate historical legacy," Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said in a statement.
Still, Begaye and relatives of Navajo Code Talkers said they're honored the story of the men recruited from the vast Southwest reservation to become Marines could be told on a national stage. Peter MacDonald, a former Navajo chairman and trained Code Talker who stood beside Trump, also took the opportunity to ask for support for a Navajo Code Talker museum. Trump obliged.
MacDonald didn't immediately return messages left Monday by The Associated Press. He didn't visibly react to Trump's "Pocahontas" comment and later told the president he was certain he would succeed, crediting military generals.
Michael Smith, a Marine whose father was a Code Talker, said most of the Code Talkers would be skeptical about going to the White House because it could be construed to mean they support a political cause.
"So, why did they go? Why were they there? He's putting them in the Oval Office to say 'You did a good job, and say hi to Pocahontas?'" Smith said. "They should be taken care of as heroes, not as pawns."
Michael Nez, whose father helped develop the code based on the Navajo language, said his father would have been upset to hear Trump's Pocahontas comment. But, as other Code Talker relatives said, his father was taught to respect the president as the commander in chief.
"It's too bad he does put his foot in his mouth," Nez said. "Why he does it? I don't know."
Helena Begaii said her 94-year-old Navajo Code Talker father, Samuel T. Holiday, declined an invitation to the White House on Monday. She said he would have a better feel for what happened once he reads the newspaper.
"I feel really sad that they didn't get treated with respect," she said.
“We honor the contributions of Pocahontas, a hero to her people, the Pamunkey Indian Tribe in Virginia, who reached across uncertain boundaries and brought people together. Once again, we call upon the President to refrain from using her name in a way that denigrates her legacy.” —Jefferson Keel, lieutenant governor of the Chickasaw Nation and president of the National Congress of American Indians
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