Donald Trump and Federal Indian Policy: ‘They Don’t Look Like Indians to Me’
In 1993, Donald Trump appeared before the United States House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources to offer testimony on Indian gaming. 1993 Donald Trump bears a striking resemblance to Presidential Candidate Donald Trump, in terms of demeanor and language – Trump’s oral testimony is consistent with the language he has used throughout his campaign for President.
Most of Trump’s testimony focused on Indian gaming itself, and his perception that the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act granted tribes an unfair advantage over his own gaming enterprises.
But, it was another part of Trump’s testimony that caught my attention. He questioned the legitimacy of Indian tribes based upon the physical appearance of their members. Here is an exchange he had with Rep. Miller of California:
Mr. Miller. Is this you discussing Indian blood: “We are going to judge people by whether they have Indian blood,” whether they are qualified to run a gaming casino or not?
Mr. Trump. That probably is me, absolutely, because I’ll tell you what, if you look—if you look at some of the reservations that you have approved—you, sir, in your great wisdom, have approved— will tell you right now, they don’t look like Indians to me, and they don’t look like Indians. Now maybe we say politically correct or not politically correct. They don’t look like Indians to me, and they don’t look like Indians to Indians, and a lot of people are laughing at it, and you are telling how tough it is, how rough it is, to get approved. Well, you go up to Connecticut, and you look. Now, they don’t look like Indians to me, sir.
The written hearing records also include a transcript from his appearance on the Don Imus show earlier that same year:
Don Imus Show (June 18, 1993)
TRUMP: Well, I think I might have more Indian blood than a lot of the so-called Indians that are trying to open up the reservations.
I looked at one of them – well, I won’t go into the whole story, but I can tell you, I said to him, “I think I have more Indian blood in me than you have in you.” And he laughed at me and he sort of acknowledged that I was right. But it’s a joke. It’s really a joke.
IMUS: A couple of these Indians up in Connecticut look like Michael Jordan, frankly.
TRUMP: I think if you’ve ever been up there, you would truly say that these are not Indians. One of them was telling me his name is Chief Running Water Sitting Bull, and I said, “That’s a long name.” He said, “Well, just call me Ricky Sanders.” So this is one of the Indians.
You can see a video of Trump’s appearance before the Committee here. The transcript and hearing record is available here: 1993 Trump Nat Res Testimony PDF. (Trump’s testimony begins around Page 175). I recommend reading the entire portion of the record involving Trump, as it sheds light on his views on Indian gaming, tribal sovereignty, and the tax status of Indian tribes.
It is tempting to heap these comments onto the pile of other racist comments that Trump has made and be done with it.
But, Trump’s 1993 comments to the Natural Resources Committee highlight a problem that has plagued federal Indian law from the Indian Reorganization Act until today: the tension between the racial and political identity of Indian people.
Trump’s comments shed light on how a Trump Administration may implement its Indian policy, posing a real risk that the federal government will subordinate the sovereign status of Indian tribes to the racial identity of individual Indians. Such a policy would rely on a subjective evaluation of who is “Indian enough” in Trump’s estimation.
In the past, when the Federal government has focused on the racial identity of Indians (rather than our political identity), it has almost always been done to limit the Federal government’s trust obligations to Indians.
The Indian Reorganization Act and “Half-Blood” Indians
For nearly 160 years – from 1776 until 1934 – federal Indian policy could be fairly summarized this way: get rid of the Indians (through war or assimilation) and take their land.
In 1934, Congress enacted the Indian Reorganization Act, or the “IRA.” The IRA marked the beginning of modern federal Indian law, and at least recognized the right of Indian people to govern themselves into the future. Congress also understood that this would put the federal government on the hook for a continuing relationship with Indian tribes, and was forced to confront how to decide who were the “real Indians” and who were not.
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