Community , Culture , Columns


On Jan. 20, images of Nick Sandmann, a young man wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat grinning into Omaha elder Nathan Phillip’s face as he drummed and sang at the Lincoln Memorial went viral. The two were so close that I wondered what the old man’s breath smelled like. When someone prays for you and fans you off, they’re close, but these strangers were even closer, eye to eye.

A large group of Sandmann’s classmates from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky surrounded them, yelling and chanting, jumping up and down and making the tomahawk chop. Phillips had participated in the first Indigenous Peoples March on the National Mall and the students were in town for their annual trip to the March for Life.

Quese Imc (Pawnee/Seminole), a Native hip-hop artist at the march followed Phillips into the crowd of students and sang with him. Quese Imc said, “He’s an elder; I couldn’t leave his side.” In each video, multiple cell phones hover above the two men like mosquitoes.

Additional video appeared Sunday, rolling through my social media along with images from the Women’s March in Oklahoma City, where Native women staged a die in. The women, including some Osage, lay on the pavement to call attention to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. They were scattered across the earth in blankets and shawls under a clear sky, reminding me of those killed at Wounded Knee, of Osages killed and stolen in the conflicts between Osage and Cherokee, as well as modern Osage women dying tragic, untimely deaths.  

Both Sandmann and Phillips have said they thought the other blocked his path. Phillips said he had walked into the space because he thought he would calm tension between the large group of teenagers and four Black Hebrew Israelites who were preaching near the Indigenous Peoples March, telling Natives that white people thought Indians were savages. Most of the Native people passed without comment.

Initially Sandmann’s behavior, his apparent disrespect was condemned, but over the weekend, some people’s perspective shifted. Fox News said Sandmann and the high school students were targeted by Phillips. Now, it seemed, the four Hebrew Israelites were to blame for remarks that prompted the students’ behavior.

Offended by the Israelite preachers, who said their wealth was built on slavery and called them crackers and children of incest, the boys asked chaperones if they could give their school cheers to drown out the men’s comments. School cheers sound wholesome, but these weren’t the girls’ pep squad cheers from my Texas high school, but versions of the haka, a traditional Maori dance.

An alumnus of the Catholic high school told the Cincinnati Inquirer, “It’s unfortunate how it all gets painted, how kids did the school cheering,” said Myles Mahan, 29, of Louisville and a 2007 graduate of Covington Catholic High School. "No one understands that’s a big part of going to Covington Catholic, going to football and basketball games … You’re part of the best cheering section in the state.”

There was video from multiple perspectives, interviews on mainstream media, on conservative media and in Native outlets. Fox News interviewed parents and chaperones, disturbed by the Israelites’ inflammatory comments.

While Sandmann, who many described as smirking, was silent, staring at Phillips and smiling, looking uncomfortable, the larger group of students surrounding him laughed and pointed, chanting along with Phillips. One Israelite said to another, “Look how they mock him.” As Phillips drummed, an Israelite said, “He calm all they spirits down. All them spirits getting demonic and he calmed them down.”

When the boys first surrounded Phillips, another Israelite called, “You all better not touch him.” Phillips said he was afraid to turn around, raising images for me of vulnerable Native men and women, beaten and murdered by whites.

By the time Nick Sandmann appeared on the Today Show on Wednesday morning, his family had hired a Louisville PR firm. In Teflon-coated prose, the teen said, "I did smile at one point because I wanted him to know that I was not going to become angry, intimidated or be provoked into a larger confrontation.” By January 25, the Diocese of Covington had apologized for their initial apology.

There’s a disconnect between the perception of the high school students as children who were victims and the energy bounding through the group. A student at Covington told WKRC News, “As we are an all-male school that loves to get hyped up (hence our cheer section's name "Colonel Crazies"), and as we have done for years prior, we decided to do some cheers to pass time.”

When I hear, “We love to get hyped up,” I wonder how far that goes. This brings me back to the Women’s March in OKC. The boys mocking Nathan Phillips, the parents’ defensiveness, the boys’ attitude and the school cheers drowning out unpleasant remarks in a barrage of sound doesn’t feel innocent. It’s a privilege to ignore how others see you; it shows a lack of empathy and insight into America’s racial violence and cultural divisions.

For a description of the convergence of Red, White and Black narratives see Native journalist Jacqueline Keeler’s interview with Audie Cornish on “All Things Considered.” See also, Deborah Miranda’s blog entry, “‘First’ Encounters”, which contextualizes the high school students’ ignorance.  

“They possess no point of reference for what an Indian person is, other than howling stereotypes from westerns, Indian sports mascots, bloody video games, and outdated novels or textbooks.”