CNN senior political commentator Rick Santorum said Friday that there was “nothing” in America before white colonizers arrived and that Native Americans haven’t contributed much to American culture anyway.

“We birthed a nation from nothing. I mean, there was nothing here,” Santorum, a former Republican senator from Pennsylvania, told students during remarks at a Young America’s Foundation event. “I mean, yes, we have Native Americans, but candidly, there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture.”

Here’s a video of his full remarks aimed at young conservatives. His comments about Native Americans begin around the 20:38 mark.

Santorum’s remarks, first flagged by Media Matters for America, are as offensive as they are inaccurate.

Indigenous peoples had been living in America thousands of years before European explorers showed up in the late 1400s and 1500s. They had their own rich cultures and traditions. European settlers tried to erase all of that by forcibly removing Indigenous people from their lands, slaughtering them, infecting them with new diseases, rounding them up and putting them on reservations, breaking treaties with them and taking their children from them and putting them into boarding schools to try to assimilate them into white culture.

The very foundation of the United States and its system of representative democracy stems from a political system developed by the Iroquois Confederacy of Nations, founded in 1142. The U.S. Senate even paid tribute to the Iroquois with a 1988 resolution stating: “The confederation of the original 13 colonies into one republic was influenced by the political system developed by the Iroquois Confederacy, as were many of the democratic principles which were incorporated into the constitution itself.”

Beyond that, all kinds of aspects of Native American culture ― sports, food, dance, art, languages, spiritual practices― are very much a part of American culture today, even if Santorum may not be aware of it.

Something else he may not be aware of: His own birthplace, Winchester, Virginia, was a Shawnee Indian camping ground.

The former Republican senator’s comments sparked outrage on Twitter, where at least one notable member of Congress responded.

“Indigenous peoples are more American than Rick Santorum,” tweeted Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-N.M.), chair of the House subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States.

In a fiery statement to HuffPost, National Congress of American Indians President Fawn Sharp said Santorum is an “unhinged and embarrassing racist who disgraces CNN” and called on the media outlet to fire him.

Here’s her full statement:

“Before I correct the record, let me address Rick Santorum directly without mincing words: Rick Santorum is an unhinged and embarrassing racist who disgraces CNN and any other media company that provides him a platform. Televising someone with his views on Native American genocide is fundamentally no different than putting an outright Nazi on television to justify the Holocaust. Any mainstream media organization should fire him or face a boycott from more than 500 tribal nations and our allies from across the country and worldwide.

Make your choice. Do you stand with White Supremacists justifying Native American genocide, or do you stand with Native Americans?

To correct the record, what European colonizers found in the Americas were thousands of complex, sophisticated, and sovereign Tribal Nations, each with millennia of distinct cultural, spiritual and technological development. Over millennia, they bred, cultivated and showed the world how to utilize such plants as cotton, rubber, chocolate, corn, potatoes, tomatoes and tobacco. Imagine the history of the United States without the economic contributions of cotton and tobacco alone. It’s inconceivable.

As far as contributions to American culture, it is impossible to capture the significant influences from individuals with Native ancestry. How do you quantify the impact of Will Rogers in film and popular culture? Maria Tallchief, the country’s first major prima ballerina? How do you ignore Olympic gold medalists like Jim Thorpe and Billy Mills, who changed sports forever? How ignorant do you have to be not to realize the impact of Native American art on every imaginable facet of American culture, from architecture to furniture making to painting, sculpture, and writing?

But most importantly, how can anyone ignore what is arguably the single most important philosophical development of human history: environmentalism. The very concept of man as but one animal within a complex ecosystem, needing to live in harmony with nature and sustainably use natural resources. No idea is more fundamentally Native American and more explicitly spread by Native American peoples. There would be no National Park system without Native American influence.

Suppose we have a prayer of confronting climate change and centuries of selfish destruction of our planet. In that case, it is due to the wisdom of leaders like Tecumseh, Chief Seattle, Chief Joseph, Sitting Bull and so many others burning into the minds and hearts of generations of American citizens until it finally changes the way people look at the entire world.

Hopefully, sophisticated and humane Native American philosophy will win out over the caveman mentality of people like Rick Santorum. Then the survival of the human race itself will be one more contribution that Native Americans made to the world.”

Crystal Echo Hawk, the executive director of IllumiNative, a nonprofit focused on combating the erasure of Native Americans, also called on CNN to fire Santorum.

“American history that does not include Native peoples is a lie, and Rick Santorum is fueling white supremacy by erasing the history of Native peoples,” said Echo Hawk. “CNN must do more to include Indigenous and diverse voices in its programming and fire Rick Santorum.”

A request for comment from CNN was not immediately returned.

Late Monday, Santorum told HuffPost in a statement that he didn’t mean to insult and erase Indigenous people.

“I had no intention of minimizing or in any way devaluing Native American culture,” he said.

This article has been updated to include comments from Sharp and Echo Hawk, and from Santorum.

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