A Kansas Republican congressman was forced to apologize after saying his quiet thoughts out loud when he asked a Native American congresswoman if she were using a “tomahawk” instead of a gavel to silence the House floor. Of course, it was only after a rousing condemnation of his racist comment that he said he was sorry.
Wichita Rep. Ponka-We Victors-Cozad, a Democrat, was presiding over the House Wednesday—a historic first for a Native American legislator—when Rep. John Wheeler made the notorious comment, The Topeka Capital-Journal reports.
The House was ruling on a bill that would return land that originally belonged to the Shawnee Tribe. Two Native American lawmakers had just finished speaking in favor of the bill when Victors-Cozad gaveled the room in order to move on to the next bill. That’s when Wheeler turned around and said, “Was just checking to see if that was a tomahawk.”
The comment drew immediate condemnation from everyone assembled. So, Wheeler apologized, using some versions of the tired “I’m an old white guy, please forgive me” excuse.
“The world has changed a lot for this 74-year-old man,” Wheeler said. "I try to keep up, but today I had a slip."
He later told The Topeka Capital-Journal that he had apologized to Reps. Christina Haswood and Rep. Stephanie Byers, and was planning to personally call Victors-Cozad from his home later.
Wheeler is a member of the Joint Committee on State-Tribal Relations.
"This is 2022 and people still think that they can say whatever they want to and think it is funny," Victors-Cozad told The Topeka Capital-Journal. "We're not a joke. Who we are, our culture, our heritage—I don't take it lightly. But when they say things like that, it is like they don't have any respect for us. It hurts."
The House was debating Senate Bill 405, a bill that would return half an acre of Shawnee tribal burial ground in Johnson County—it was unanimously passed.
According to the Kansas Historical Society, prior to their relocation to Kansas, the Shawnee people lived in Tennessee and South Carolina, but moved around often. Relocation to the area began in 1826, when most of the tribe lived in what are now Wyandotte and Johnson counties.
This is not the first time a lawmaker has gone on the racist tirade on Indigenous people in the state.
Just last month, Education Commissioner Randy Watson was on Zoom during a two-day conference when he began talking about tornadoes and how his visiting family as a child were afraid of them.
“They’re like, ‘Are we going to get killed by a tornado?’” Watson said according to The Associated Press “And I’d say, ‘Don’t worry about that, but you got to worry about the Indians raiding the town at any time.’”
AP reports that Watson attempted to resign his position after making the racist remarks, but the State Board of Education voted to reject his resignation and instead suspended him without pay for a month.
“We looked at the entire history of the commissioner,” Jim Porter, a Republican from southeastern Kansas and the chairman of the State Board of Education said according to AP. “We believe in restorative justice.”
Porter also threw out at the time that the three Native American lawmakers had themselves faced legal issues, and were able to “remain in their position with no or limited consequences.”
Adding: “It seems ironic to me that Commissioner Watson, who owned and did take responsibility for his statement, which was not illegal, feels obligated or feels forced to resign.”
According to the Kansas Reflector, the state is home to four federally recognized tribes: the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska (White Cloud), the Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas (Horton), the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation (Mayetta), and the Sac and Fox Nation of Missouri in Kansas and Nebraska (Reserve).
Republished with permission from Daily Kos.