The prominent placement of an Andrew Jackson portrait during an event meant to honor a group of Native Americans at the Oval Office on Monday has raised questions about the White House’s message.
Jackson is known for his harsh treatment of Native Americans as president, famously signing the Indian Removal Act, which led to thousands of Native American deaths as tens of thousands were forced to relocate. Some observers thought the juxtaposition of his portrait during the event with the stated purpose of honoring three Navajo code talkers was strange.
“We noticed,” said Jacqueline Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians. “Andrew Jackson wasn’t necessarily a president who was respectful of tribal governments and Native Americans. This is one of those eras that is probably bleaker in terms of the relationship between Native Americans and the federal government.”
The portrait is visible for the entirety of the White House’s 17-minute broadcast of the event.
As president from 1829 to 1837, Jackson is perhaps most famous for his pivotal role in Native Americans’ painful and violent history in the United States. He signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, which forced the relocation of more than 60,000 Native Americans to clear the way for white pioneers. The act helped lead to the “Trail of Tears,” in which an estimated 4,000 Cherokee died during the harsh conditions of a long march during a forced relocation in 1838 and 1839. The Cherokees called Jackson “Indian killer”; the Creek called him “Sharp Knife.”
A slave owner, Jackson spoke about Native Americans as if they were an inferior group of people. “Established in the midst of a superior race,” he said of the Cherokee, “they must disappear.”
Removing Native Americans from their land would “enable them to pursue happiness in their own way, and under their own rude institutions,” he said.
Trump’s affinity for Jackson has long been a facet of his public image as a politician. He lambasted an Obama administration plan, which has not yet taken effect, to remove Jackson from the $20 bill in favor of abolitionist Harriet Tubman, referring to Jackson during the presidential campaign as someone with “a history of tremendous success for the country.” And just days after his inauguration in January, Trump selected a portrait of Jackson in the Oval Office. In March, he stopped by the Hermitage, Jackson’s home in Tennessee, to lay a wreath at the former president’s tomb. The president’s former chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, lauded Trump’s inauguration address as “Jacksonian.”
Pata said she wanted to assume the symbolism wasn’t intentional.
As the president spoke to honor the three code talkers Monday, he lobbed the nickname “Pocahontas” at Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), which many consider to be a racial slur.
Gyasi Ross, an author from Washington state and member of the Blackfeet Nation tribe, said he considered the portrait’s prominence during the news conference to be an intentional slight.
“It’s an incredibly distasteful wink in front of people who have sacrificed so much,” he said. “Donald Trump is not a stupid man. He understands visuals and optics: His background is in television. So all of that stuff, I believe, is very deliberate.”
He said the insult was magnified by the nature of the event.
“Elders and veterans, we take those two things very seriously,” he said, speaking about Native Americans. “And so to people who take that seriously, all of these things are incredibly consequential.”
Mihio Manus, a spokesman for the president and vice president of the Navajo Nation, said the placement of the Jackson portrait was “unfortunate.”
However, Thomas Begay, one of the code talkers honored Monday, told Joshua Green, a CNN political analyst, that he was “puzzled” but not offended.
“The Marines made us yell ‘Geronimo’ when we jumped out of planes and that didn’t offend me either,” he said.
When asked about the Pocahontas comment, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that being offensive was “certainly not the president’s intent.” She did not answer a question about the Jackson painting that was shouted as she left the briefing room.
Trump has hosted conferences in front of the portrait before, like an economic announcement the president made this month. When Venezuelan activist Lilian Tintori met with the president and Vice President Pence in October, Trump had the group pose under the Jackson portrait and then posted the photo on Twitter. But there are plenty of other places to host a press event at the White House.
A remark Trump made to Congress in 1993 about owners of casinos not looking like Indians continues to draw scrutiny.
Some have compared Jackson, a populist who campaigned against elites and was known for being temperamental, to Trump.
Trump’s admiration for the seventh president has not gone unnoticed by Native Americans, Pata said.
“We knew when he chose to put the wreath on Andrew Jackson’s grave,” she said. “There are a lot of presidents out there. We remember those things. It’s part of our history, too.”
DeNeen L. Brown contributed to this report.