Trump’s Direct Assault on Native American Tribal Sovereignty

Much has been made of Donald Trump’s history of racist statements about African Americans and Latinos. We’ve heard a lot less about his overt racism against Native Americans. But that was a key issue back in the 1990s when Trump used racist tactics against Native American casinos.

When Trump began clashing with Native American tribes, the stakes for him were huge. He had benefited from Atlantic City’s near-monopoly on East Coast gambling until a change in federal law in 1988 opened the door to more tribal casinos. Trump owned two casinos and opened a third in 1990. In the early 1990s, just as the casinos were emerging from bankruptcy, federal lawmakers were working out how to regulate the fledgling Indian gaming industry.

Here’s what happened when he was asked to testify before Congress at a hearing in 1993 on Indian casinos:

Trump told lawmakers that organized crime “is rampant — I don’t mean a little bit — is rampant on Indian reservations.” He predicted “one of the biggest scandals since Al Capone.” Then came the line that many Native Americans would remember for decades: that the federally recognized Connecticut tribe that owned Foxwoods — the Mashantucket Pequots — did not look like real Indians.

Seven years later, he was still at it.

In 2000, when New York was considering expanding Native American casinos in the Catskill Mountains, a series of TV, newspaper and radio ads popped up in the state accusing the Mohawk Indian tribe of having long criminal records and ties to the mob. The ads showed pictures of cocaine lines and syringes and asked: “Are these the new neighbors we want?”

As far as the public knew, the ads were sponsored by a newly formed group called the Institute for Law and Safety. The group claimed that it was funded by 12,000 “grass-roots, pro-family” donors.

But in reality, it was bankrolled by Trump’s casino company.

During the 2016 campaign, Trump began his disrespectful habit of calling Sen. Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas,” but he also promised to reverse yet another one of Obama’s executive actions.

The reason he didn’t follow through on that one is because this happened during a meeting he had with Alaska’s two Republican senators, Sullivan and Murkowski.

Trump had one final issue on his mind. “He looked at me and said, ‘I heard that the big mountain in Alaska also had – also its name was changed by executive action. Do you want us to reverse that?'” Sullivan said.

He and Murkowski “jumped over the desk, we said, ‘no! No. Don’t want to reverse that,’ ” Sullivan said.

Alaska’s junior senator told the president that Denali was the name given to the mountain by the Athabascan people more than 10,000 years ago. And Sullivan’s wife is Athabascan. If “you change that name back now, she’s going to be really, really mad,” he said he told the president.

Subsequently, the Trump administration’s approval of the Keystone pipeline and their decision to shrink Bears Ears National Monument have “earned a rebuke from a swath of Americans still reeling from a historically caustic relationship with the federal government.”

And yet the most alarming thing we’ve seen from the Trump administration might still be in its infancy stages. Recently HHS has approved the right of states to impose work requirements on Medicaid recipients. Native Americans have traditionally been exempted from those kinds of requirements. Now the Trump administration has suggested that they will no longer allow that to continue. It is their reasoning on that decision that is monumental.

The Trump administration contends the tribes are a race rather than separate governments, and exempting them from Medicaid work rules — which have been approved in three states and are being sought by at least 10 others — would be illegal preferential treatment. “HHS believes that such an exemption would raise constitutional and federal civil rights law concerns,” according to a review by administration lawyers…

The tribes insist that any claim of “racial preference” is moot because they’re constitutionally protected as separate governments, dating back to treaties hammered out by President George Washington and reaffirmed in recent decades under Republican and Democratic presidents alike, including the Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama administrations.

In other words, the Trump administration could be moving in the direction of overturning this country’s treaties with Native American tribes that have existed from our founding as a country. While it is true that the federal government has a horrible track record of abiding by those treaties, no president has ever established policy in direct contradiction to tribal sovereignty.

Because Native Americans make up such a small percentage of the population (thanks to genocide), my fear is that, as the Trump administration moves forward on things like this, no one will pay attention—or even care. While I understand that so much of what we all hold dear is under assault by this president on a daily basis, inflicting yet another massive wound on our Native brothers and sisters is something I hope the rest of us can find it in our hearts and minds to fight.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.