Opinion

Renée Graham

Elizabeth Warren should embrace Native American causes

CEDAR RAPIDS, IOWA - FEBRUARY 10: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks at a campaign rally at the University of Iowa on February 10, 2019 in Iowa City, Iowa. Warren is making her first three campaign stops in the state since announcing yesterday the she was officially running for the 2020 Democratic nomination for president. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Senato Elizabeth Warren

It’s a headline so detestable, it could have been cribbed from one of President Trump’s racist tweets: “CHIEF RIVAL.”

That was on the front page of Sunday’s Boston Herald after Senator Elizabeth Warren officially launched her presidential campaign a day earlier. That’s not “chief,” as in Trump’s main opponent for the White House; it’s likely a smirking reference to Indian “chief,” another nasty dig at Warren’s specious claims of indigenous ancestry.

It’s also a disgraceful assault on Native Americans, whose culture is being used as kindling to fuel Trump’s bigotry and political attacks.

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The president and his deplorable band of racists aren’t just targeting Warren. They’re mocking Native American lives and history. In service to their avarice, ambition, and calamitous belief in supremacy-as-destiny, white men are again reducing this population to collateral damage.

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Native Americans don’t deserve this, while Warren’s wounds are self-inflicted. She allowed questions about apocryphal family lore and heritage to fester for years, dating back to her first campaign in 2012 against Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown. Seven years later, Trump is ramping up his racist rhetoric. He took an especially hideous turn (again) when he evoked one of this nation’s worst atrocities to jab the Massachusetts senator.

“Today Elizabeth Warren, sometimes referred to by me as Pocahontas, joined the race for President,” he tweeted. Will she run as our first Native American presidential candidate, or has she decided that after 32 years, this is not playing so well anymore? See you on the campaign TRAIL, Liz!”

Like a low-rent comedian with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, Trump emphasized “trail,” so that his reference wouldn’t be missed. For many, he seemed to be evoking the Trail of Tears, the US government’s forced relocation of Native Americans from ancestral homelands to designated “Indian territory,” what is now Oklahoma. Beginning in the 1830s, about 15,000 men, women, and children died from exhaustion, starvation, disease, and exposure.

It was a genocide. For Trump, it’s a punch line.

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Conservatives, of course, ran to Trump’s defense, essentially declaring that he’s too dumb to make such a pointed historical citation. Two years into his presidency, Trump has done little to counter the notion that he’s no more than a know-nothing blowhard who aggressively shuns facts for lies and is oblivious to any history beyond his own. (And he lies about that, too.)

Yet Trump is also an Andrew Jackson fanboy, with the former president’s portrait prominently displayed in the Oval Office. Drawn to cruelty, Trump connects to Jackson’s demonizing of the Other and the tactics he engaged in, such as the Indian Removal Act, to heap misery on those already violently marginalized.

Racism is Trump’s money shot. It’s why he’ll never stop ridiculing Warren, and deriding Native Americans. And that’s why Warren should add their causes to her campaign talking points.

When she mentions the opioid crisis, Warren can highlight the disproportionate impact of substance abuse on Native American youth living on reservations. She can talk about how Native American women are at a significantly higher risk of domestic violence, and that their children suffer higher rates of violence and abuse.

As Trump touts an economic boom, Warren can point out that Native Americans have the lowest employment rate of any racial or ethnic group in this nation. Trump will offer racist jokes; Warren can offer solutions.

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In January, New Mexico’s Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids of Kansas became the first two Native American women elected to Congress. They will give voice to long-ignored Native American concerns; Warren should amplify them.

Yes, it’s a tricky balance. She’ll be accused on the left and right of pandering. (All politicians pander.) Still, Warren can seize an opportunity to help Native Americans too little seen and too rarely heard. For decades, she claimed their heritage as her own; now, as Warren runs for president, she should do the same for their issues and concerns.

Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.