MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
In this very early stage of the 2020 presidential campaign, a pattern of attack against one candidate has already emerged - President Trump going after Senator Elizabeth Warren with references to Native Americans. Warren has in the past identified herself as having Cherokee heritage. One case in point - over the weekend, Trump tweeted asking if she would run as, quote, "the first Native American presidential candidate" and said he would see her on the campaign trail - trail in all caps. David Chang says those comments are dehumanizing to Native people. He chairs the American Indian Studies Department at the University of Minnesota. Professor Chang, welcome.
DAVID CHANG: Thank you.
KELLY: When we see that trail in all capital letters, of course, the reference is to the Trail of Tears. But this is a pattern. In an earlier tweet, the president took aim again - this is at Elizabeth Warren - over a video that she posted on Instagram where she's drinking a beer in her kitchen. He calls her Pocahontas again. He says if she'd done this commercial from Bighorn or Wounded Knee instead of her kitchen with her husband dressed in full Indian garb, it would have been a smash - a tweet that you have argued pokes fun at a devastating massacre and reinforced racist stereotypes.
CHANG: Right. Along with Alyssa Mt. Pleasant, an American Indian historian, we pointed out that he's really bringing together all these symbols - Pocahontas, bringing up the name of an actual American Indian woman but using it as a racial slur, referring to the battle at Little Bighorn, referring to the massacre at Wounded Knee, now the Trail of Tears. All these things come together with a whole kind of a field of symbols where he's relegating American Indian people to the past where they are the enemies of the United States. This is a real problem on a number of fronts.
American Indian people, Indigenous people, are not mascots. They have not disappeared. They are not punchlines. Indigenous people are serious, contemporary people in the 21st century. And they have serious, contemporary issues to deal with. And so this kind of humor trivializes, demeans and also distracts from the reality of contemporary American Indian life.
KELLY: Could they be - all of the things that you describe, could they at the same time be smart politics? The president is zeroing in on what he perceives as a weakness of one of his political opponents. Senator Warren has released a DNA test to support her claim of Native American heritage. She's not a member of any tribe. And she has been criticized herself for things that she said about her heritage.
CHANG: She's right to be criticized, and Professor Mt. Pleasant and myself have criticized for that, along with many other Indigenous people. It's not my job to judge the political strategy of the Trump administration. But it's more my job to speak from a perspective that is not often brought in here. And that is the perspective of Indigenous communities across the continent. So this might be a political strategy, but what matters here to me is how destructive, how brutal and how cruel it is to make a joke of genocide and ethnic cleansing.
KELLY: Let me bring into the conversation actor Rob Lowe, who has also tweeted about Elizabeth Warren and said she would bring new meaning, quote, "to commander in chief." Lowe later apologized, but I wonder if you think, taken together, this gets at a larger cultural blind spot in terms of why this might be deeply offensive to Native Americans and their communities.
CHANG: I think that's right. There's a blind spot of, it would seem to me, of almost willful ignorance or of not looking rather than of just not seeing. To make references to Little Bighorn, Wounded Knee, chief, Pocahontas, Trail of Tears, in addition to the other violence that these things do, they do the violence of making people not part of the political conversation.
KELLY: David Chang - he is professor of history and chair of the American Indian Studies Department at the University of Minnesota. Thank you so much.
CHANG: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.