Conservative media meltdown over Indigenous person being invited to the State of the Union
White House assumes cautious posture.
WASHINGTON — It’s not great news for Indian Country when an Indigenous person simply being invited to the State of the Union causes a meltdown across conservative media.
But it’s also not the best news for Indian Country when the White House realizes it might have a bit of an unplanned distraction on its hands, so it attempts to minimize said Indigenous person.
The Native American at the center of the minor storm is Melissa Isaac, a citizen of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Mt. Pleasant, Mich. After the first lady’s SOTU guest list was announced yesterday, Indigenous Wire wrote about Isaac’s impending attendance, noting that she’s the leader of the Michigan Department of Education’s Indigenous Education Initiative and the founder of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe’s Project AWARE Program. The first lady met with her and other tribal officials in October when she and the U.S. surgeon general visited the tribe.
The White House prominently highlighted Isaac’s Indian name, Gizhwaasod, within the biography it released for her. Gizhwaasod translates to “Protector of the Young” in the Anishinaabe Ojibwe language, according to the White House.
Turns out that said Indian name — and the resilience it represents — helped the conservative media to lose their collective mind.
Fox News, Breitbart, The New York Post and others all wrote negative articles about Isaac’s attendance, noting her (unsurprising) past support for critical race theory, which she has expressed in various forms on social media.
A podcast called Tom Shattuck's Burn Barrel spent a chunk of the show with its two co-hosts laughing at the Indian name, mocking its pronunciation, and again, drawing attention to Isaac’s rooted beliefs in critical race theory.
They appeared to attribute any Indigenous ideas she has to “woke” culture. One of the hosts also drank a beer when talking about Isaac, which surprised his co-host who said she thought he was “back on the wagon.”
The show overlooked all of Isaac’s Native American education and mental health credentials and instead listed her as a “CRT whacko” in its description of the program.
The story doesn’t end there, however. According to people close to the administration, the White House quickly caught wind that the conservative press was going to try to draw attention to Isaac during the president’s speech, and folks in the White House did not want Isaac’s attendance to shift the focus.
Officials were all said to treat Isaac very well in person, and she did sit behind Jill Biden at the speech last night. Her ribbon skirt lit up Native social media, with many asking who she was and why she hadn’t been called out by the president during his address. The president referenced tribes only one time during the SOTU in the larger context of building up the nation’s infrastructure, and he missed an opportunity to highlight tribal colleges and universities alongside the support he expressed for historically black colleges and universities.
The questions from onlookers on social media were understandable regarding the mysterious “auntie in the ribbon dress,” as some started calling her. That’s because, when the White House invites people to sit with a first lady during the SOTU, the administration usually has a reason for wanting to promote the person or the ideology symbolized by said person. That fact was exemplified by President Joe Biden championing Ukraine’s U.S. ambassador last night, receiving strong bipartisan applause in doing so.
Every time the cameras pointed to the first lady’s seating area, people could see Isaac’s bright ribbon skirt, and Natives would tweet about it. Yet a shout out to her never came. A young diabetic boy received his time in the sun, as did others, but not Isaac.
U.S. Department of the Interior officials, former Native federal staffers and current Democratic National Committee staff all wondered why in the world the White House would put Isaac in such a prominent position and then seem to back away from having the president note during his address that she was even in attendance.
The White House could present any number of excuses, pointing to limited time or the fact that not all people in the first lady’s viewing box were publicly mentioned.
But the White House has not responded to requests for comment, thus lending credence to the idea that it was concerned that Isaac’s attendance — after the critical conservative articles started being posted — could take the night slightly off message.
Notably, when Jill Biden tweeted about her invited attendees before the speech started — but after the negative conservative articles began being published — she omitted the word Gizhwaasod in her description of Isaac. Yet Gizhwaasod was in the initial first line of the original White House announcement, which seemed to be a word that several conservatives honed in on during their critiques.
Another strange thing about the first lady’s tweet was that it referred to Isaac as “currently an enrolled member of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe.”
“Currently” is an odd word to describe an enrolled tribal citizen. One is either an enrolled tribal citizen, or one is not an enrolled tribal citizen, and the White House’s Native advisers certainly know that, so a better review of communications involving Natives appears in order.
As for whether Isaac has been affected by the controversy — and the White House’s response to it — she hasn’t said yet.
She did post pictures of the evening on social media, seeming to enjoy herself. And she wrote that she was honored to be there.
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