KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Yesterday, President Trump spoke at a White House event to recognize Native American code talkers. These are the Native American men who were recruited to create a code based on their tribal languages to help U.S. troops communicate in secret during battle. Three of the few code talkers who are still alive were at the White House to be honored. And then this happened.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You're very, very special people. You were here long before any of us were here. Although we have a representative in Congress who they say was here a long time ago. They call her Pocahontas. But you know what? I like you because you are special.
MCEVERS: The president was referring to Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren, who he calls Pocahontas because she has identified as part Native American. Warren and others called the comment a racial slur. The White House said it was not. Earlier today I asked Jackie Pata what she thought about it. She's executive director of the National Congress of American Indians.
JACQUELINE PATA: Immediately I felt hurt for the code talkers. This event was so much about the code talkers, and I wanted it to be so much about them. And, you know, I felt, like, a little slighted that this opportunity would be used to make a political statement rather than to honor those in the room.
MCEVERS: Do you think it's a racial slur?
PATA: The word itself isn't a racial slur, but the way that it is used sometimes is in a negative way. And it wasn't meant to be respectful of who Pocahontas was. It was meant to be used as a poke to a political adversary.
MCEVERS: And so yesterday's event was meant to honor 13 surviving Native American code talkers. What do you think people should know about them?
PATA: Well, the code talkers were from World War I and World War II. The first ones were from the Choctaw Nation. Many other tribal nations had code talkers. And there probably is about less than 20 that are alive. And since they're so elderly - they're in their 90s at this point - many of them couldn't travel. It was a really great idea. And I know the folks at the White House worked really hard to make sure that this was an event to honor those code talkers for the first time, for them to be able to come to the White House to be honored by the president for their service and what they did to help actually win those wars.
MCEVERS: Have you talked to any of them? How are they feeling about how this has now been turned into something totally different?
PATA: I haven't talked to them since the event, but I can only imagine. And what we want to be able to make sure is that the focus goes back on the code talkers. This is a chance for us to really celebrate their contributions, and what we should be talking about is them.
MCEVERS: As far as we can tell, the president has not apologized for this. In the absence of that, what do you think should be done? What can be done?
PATA: How the White House continues to engage with Indian country will be important. We have always looked for whoever's in the administration to be able to move forward policies that are important to our tribal nations, the services that are promised to us for the giving up of our lands such as health care and education. We want to be able to make sure that those services remain intact and that we actually continue to develop our community so that it can be thriving for the next generations.
MCEVERS: Jackie Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, thank you so much.
PATA: Thank you.
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