“By centering this founders’ narrative and calling it American history, it completely erases Native people,” Tara Houska, a tribal attorney in Minnesota, told The Washington Post. “It’s an uncomfortable truth that the first people in this country were here before the founding of the U.S.”
But contrary to the claims of many critics — including at least one major Native group — the White House didn’t actually replace Native American Heritage Month with the new celebration of the Founding Fathers. The White House also issued a proclamation on Thursday, the same day the new celebration was announced, noting November’s long-standing Native history remembrance, though that proclamation doesn’t appear on the White House’s site for unclear reasons.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment early Tuesday.
For many indigenous communities, though, that fact made little difference: The introduction of “National American History” month, they say, felt like a particularly ill-timed slap in the face from a president who has a history of mocking Native Americans, from his repeated use of “Pocahontas” to describe Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to making a joke about the Wounded Knee massacre.
Trump’s new proclamation echoes similar events in some states. In Florida, “American Founders’ Month” is observed every September with an emphasis on civics in the classroom. Both Arkansas and Missouri made efforts to establish that commemoration earlier this year. The president’s proclamation, meanwhile, encourages collective reflection on the “vibrant American spirit” that has fueled the U.S. to victories in the Revolutionary and Second World Wars and that is behind current domestic campaigns like combating the opioid crisis.
“For more than two centuries, the American experiment in self-government has been the antithesis to tyranny, and our Constitution has secured the blessings of liberty,” the White House statement said. “To continue to advance liberty and prosperity, we must ensure the next generation of leaders is steeped in the proud history of our country.”
But some historians slammed the statement for an oversimplified and glorified portrayal of a national history that is far more complex — or merely for repeating and rehashing pieces of U.S. history that are already well-studied and well-known.
“It’s a kind of call to arms that seeks [to] define patriotism in narrow, nonnegotiable terms,” Alexander Karn, a Colgate University professor who studies the politics of history, said in an email to The Post. “What’s especially concerning is the way this statement frames as an enemy of freedom anyone who would question or wish to complicate the outlines of the story.”
Last week, the White House put the official proclamation for National American History Month on its website, together with designations for other monthly commemorations. On Monday, some on Twitter noticed that a similar proclamation for Native American History Month wasn’t on the site. That fueled rumors that the Founders month celebration was in fact replacing Native American Heritage Month.
But some Native American activists argue that the Trump administration erred by scheduling the new celebration of the Founders during the same month.
Simon Moya-Smith, a writer and member of the Oglala Lakota Nation, told The Post that Native American Heritage Month already lacks a strong following. A new commemoration of some of the very same leaders who helped decimate the country’s indigenous communities is inappropriate, he argued.
“The proclamation is a clear rejection of what Native American Heritage Month stands for: that we, as indigenous people, survived these so-called Founding Fathers who weren’t founders at all,” Moya-Smith said. “They were invaders. They massacred, they murdered, they demonized."
While the Native American Heritage Month proclamation is slated to appear in the Federal Register on Tuesday, Moya-Smith said the National American History month proclamation serves as a rejection of that heritage.
“It subverts and insults the purpose of this month,” he said, “by saying, ‘We’re also going to celebrate the white people that hated the Indians.' Even if he does make the proclamation, people can see that in and of itself is lip service.”
Houska, a former adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) who is Ojibwe from Couchiching First Nation, said Trump has outwardly mocked Native people to achieve other ends but “remained absolutely silent to Native voices.”
She pointed to a long record of conflict on this front: from portraying members of a New York tribe as cocaine traffickers to his first few days in office, when he took a page on American Indian affairs off the White House website and approved the Keystone XL pipeline. He also honored Navajo code-talkers under a painting of President Andrew Jackson, who was known for his deadly policies toward Native Americans while president.
If Trump did want a month to honor the Founding Fathers, she said, he could have simply picked a different month.