In a 1997 The Larry King Live broadcast, Trump was asked about his relationships with Native American tribes after having had very public run ins with them. “I mean, I have very, very good relationships with a lot of the Indians and a lot of the Indian casinos at the high levels,” he said.
A few years earlier at a 1993 Subcommittee on Native American Affairs hearing, Trump doubted Native American’s ability to govern themselves as sovereign nations seeing as they receive education, healthcare, and other longstanding treaty rights. Trump was suing over the Indian Rights Gaming Act, claiming it gained tribes an unfair advantage in the casino industry.
“I listen about sovereign nation, the great sovereign nation, and yet $30 billion to all of the various programs was contributed to the sovereign nation for education, for welfare, for this, for that,” he said.
“Yet the sovereign nation and the people of the sovereign nation have the right to vote in our country. I listen as to sovereign nation, all of the medical, all of the other treaties. I want to know, can Indians sign treaties with foreign nations? Can they go and sign a treaty with Germany? The answer is no. How is it a sovereign nation?”
Among his most controversial statements at the hearings and against the advice of his lawyers, Trump reiterated earlier claims made earlier claims from shock jock Don Imus’s radio show that the Connecticut’s Mashantucket Pequots didn’t look like Indians.
“I think I might have more Indian blood than a lot of the so-called Indians that are trying to open up the reservations,” he said. A collective gasp filled the room.
Trump would later tell King, “I made a statement, ‘They don’t look like Indians to me.’ And everyone said, ‘Oh, what a terrible statement.’ I said, ‘What’s wrong? They don’t.’… And then, actually, a number of shows did a story that my statement was 100 percent correct. I never liked to apologize and there’s no reason to apologize.”
Trump doesn’t like apologizing, indeed. After getting caught in 2000 for financing a libelous ad campaign under the guise of nonexistent “grassroots, pro-family” donors aimed at opposing the Mohawk Tribe’s competing casinos in New York state, Trump was forced to pay a $250,000 fine and issue a public apology. The ads showed things like syringes, lines of cocaine, and other made up claims of criminal ties to the mob the Mohawks supposedly had.
Mohawk lawyer Brad Waterman told the Middletown Times Herald-Record, “Those ads were about as racist as you can get. You can’t attach too much value to the apology when it’s compelled. It’s not like he’s seen Jesus, or anything.”
All while this went on, Trump ironically struck a 1997 bargain with the federally unrecognized Paucatuck tribe in Connecticut “to pay for the costly process of documenting the tribe’s lineage so it could get the federal approval needed to operate a casino,” The Washington Post wrote in 2016. In return, Trump would get a management fee percentage of potential earnings.
The tribe gained joint federal recognition in 2002 along with the Eastern Pequot. The Paucatucks chairwoman told The WaPo she wasn’t bothered by Trump’s statements because “If I held everyone accountable for every word they said, I wouldn’t have a life.”
Eastern Pequot Chairman Joseph Perry regarded them more personally, telling The WaPo, “It was a factor in my mind. What do Native Americans look like? … Some are dark-skinned like myself. We don’t all look alike.”
The council voted against using Trump as a developer, and Trump sued the tribe and settled out of court. An angry Trump reluctantly still had to pay $600,000 to lobbyists who helped the tribe gain recognition, however. (Both tribes lost federal recognition after a 2005 appeal.)
In the midst of the Paucutack dealings, out west Trump made a deal with the Twenty-Nine Palms tribe in California’s Coachella Valley a day after voters lessened restrictions regarding Native gambling in 2000. The small tribe figured Trump could help gain the tribe publicity and expertise in running the casino after a $60 million expansion—with Trump personally loaning $11 million. The Spotlight 29 casino changed its name to Trump 29, agreeing to pay him a hefty management fee of 30 percent of profits for a period of 5 years starting in 2002 as detailed in The Desert Sun’s fascinating piece called How Donald Trump got fired by a California casino.
The Desert Sun noted all of Trump’s baggage with Natives made him and the Twenty-Nine Palms tribe “strange bedfellows,” noting the “California Nations Indian Gaming Association warned that businessmen like Trump looked at tribes for resources, not relationships.”
Still, the Trump 29 casino would begin netting over $20 million a year. Other Trump Hotels and Casino resorts were $1.2 billion in debt. When Trump rid himself of $500 million in debt after declaring bankruptcy in October of 2004, the Twenty-Nine Palms tribe took advantage of a buyout clause.
The Desert Sun reported, “Trump was paid $6 million in the buyout, but missed out on two and half years of management revenue, which would have been worth about $20 million if casino revenues held steady. The buyout fee had been set at more than $11 million, according to SEC filings, so the tribe must have talked it down in negotiations.”
The casino would change its name back to Spotlight 29 after they ‘fired’ Trump.
With Trump’s tumultuous past dealings with Natives, I’ve oft joked Trump’s original goal was not to become the U.S. President, but a scheming tribal chairman. On a serious note though, it’s no secret that Trump harbors grudges directly affecting his attitude toward Indian country.
Recall how Trump said, “I didn’t even think it was controversial,” after signing an Executive Order regarding the Dakota Access Pipeline on his first day in office. Since he wasn’t living under a rock, he certainly knew it was and splitting the sovereignty of the Standing Rock tribe was likely on his mind.
In the lead up to elections, many said, “Both Hillary and Trump are the same! They don’t care about Natives!” I’d reply, “Maybe you’re half right in that Hillary doesn’t indeed care about Natives, but you’re wrong about Trump not caring because he does—just not in a friendly way.”
Notice the vehemence Trump uses when calling Senator Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas.” While some Natives agree Trump is correct for bashing Warren and her belief of Native ancestry, they should realize he’s being patronizing toward them as well.
As the last note of Trump’s WikiLeaks file points out via The New York Times, Trump said about Warren, “I think it’s wonderful because the Indians can now partake in the future of the country. She’s got about as much Indian blood as I have.”
So there you have it, Native America. At this precarious time in advancing issues regarding tribal sovereignty, Trump says you can now partake in the future of “Making America Great Again.” I expect your concerns will be taken seriously now. But coming from a guy who hung a portrait of renowned “Indian killer” President Andrew Jackson on his first day in office? Don’t count it.