On Saturday, the world reacted to a video of white teenagers wearing MAGA hats surrounding and mocking an Omaha elder and Vietnam veteran as he sang the American Indian Movement Anthem. One boy, Nicholas Sandmann, whose facial expression was shared widely across social media, is seen staring Phillips down, smirking.
The boys, from Covington Catholic School in Kentucky, were in Washington, D.C. on Friday for the anti-choice March for Life rally and, when the incident occurred, had approached the permitted area for the Indigenous People’s March. Their behavior was widely condemned as disrespectful, privileged, and racist.
Then, the news cycle flipped. Now, we are told, in labeling this interaction racist, we jumped the gun. We need to go back and watch the many camera angles to understand that the crowd of menacing tomahawk chops were actually innocent boys in a more complicated and nuanced situation. We are told the takeaway isn’t about racism or privilege, but a much more palatable “don’t believe everything you see online.”
I know what I saw.
For a brief moment Saturday our country was poised to have the exceedingly rare and desperately needed conversation about contemporary racism against Native Americans. Despite the fact that Native Americans are more likely to live in poverty, experience rape or abuse, and be killed by police than any other ethnic or racial group, two-thirds of our fellow American citizens believe we don’t experience significant discrimination.
K-12 education fails miserably at teaching young people the truth about the history of genocide in this country, and respect and tolerance for contemporary Native Americans. Only four states teach the history of Indian Boarding Schools, which sought to assimilate Native Americans and rid us of our culture, and only 13 percent of state history curriculum standards about Native Americans cover events after the year 1900. Extensive research by Dr. Stephanie Fryberg shows that the over 2,000 racist mascots in K-12 schools teach white and non-Native students to feel superior to Native people and to see us as less human.
The truth is, Native Americans experience racial hostility daily, but people rarely pay attention. In the now ancient reactions of the first 24 hours of this controversy’s life cycle, Native voices were the first to report and share the video. Rather than expressing shock, most Native voices expressed a tired familiarity of just how common, how everyday these experiences are. We have all seen our prayers, our songs, our culture mocked. We have all been on the receiving end of that shamelessly smug smirk.
If you’re Native, you know the look Sandmann is giving Phillips. I don’t need CNN or NBC or award winning journalists or whoever to tell me about that look, I get it from someone in South Dakota every time I go.
— Megan Red Shirt-Shaw (@mredshirtshaw) January 22, 2019
These incidents are not new for Native folks. They’re part of larger systemic problems that stem from ongoing settler colonialism. Allow Native writers, reporters, and community members illuminate that context and nuance for you.
— Dr. Adrienne Keene (@NativeApprops) January 19, 2019
But before the public could learn about contemporary racism against Native people, the truth got squashed — professionally.
Sandmann’s family hired a well-connected PR firm to spin the story. RunSwitch, whose co-owner Scott Jennings is an adviser to House Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and is a CNN contributor, pushed the story Sunday that Nick and his peers were the real victims. After neglecting to disclose its ties to RunSwitch, CNN shared Sandmann’s statement, and the rest of the mainstream media, with its bottomless mercy for white boys and bottomless suspicion for people color, gobbled it up.
As videos continue to surface, the Covington boys look no less guilty. Additional videos show one of Sandmann’s peers making a rape joke (“it’s not rape if you enjoy it”) and another group yelling at women walking by — all before the now famous altercation. Old photos are surfacing of Covington Catholic youth in blackface and a second camera angle shows the crowd boisterously jumping up and down as they laugh in Phillips’ face.
Sandmann’s mother also tried to change the narrative by blaming her son’s behavior on “Black Muslims.” She was actually referring to a group of Black Israelites — widely known for their street side antagonizing — who yelled inappropriate insults at the high school students, as well as the members of the Indigenous Peoples Day March. This fact has been spun as the moment that changes everything, and turns a situation of clear racism into what media outlets from NPR to the Washington Post to USA Today have described as “complicated.” While we are told by Sandmann’s PR firm that the high school students were frightened and intimidated by the group’s insults, on camera they respond by chanting, yelling, and ripping off their shirts.
Countless people have been harassed in public by the Black Israelites and groups like them, but nowhere else do such interactions translate into blanket permission to harass and disrespect other people. How does the behavior of a completely separate group of people justify the students’ treatment of Phillips?
Our democracy is threatened by growing divisions and growing polarization. In some situations, finding common ground is a nice sentiment and even a noble cause. However, an even greater threat to our Democratic society is losing our collective grasp on reality. Democracy cannot function in a world where the truth is irrelevant, or even worse, where it is manufactured.
In what reality do intimidated and frightened teenagers scream, chant, and rip off their shirts? In what universe does singing a hand drum song — the AIM anthem — equal a threat or confrontation? How on earth is staring someone down and smirking an expression of respect and peace? Are we really supposed to believe all of this?
Up is still up, down is still down, the truth is still the truth and the actions of the Covington Catholic youth are still racist and wrong. The media pundits who are tripping over themselves to appear neutral and balanced are feeding into gaslighting tactics that are becoming more common in the era of Trump and more effective as our national dialogue is anchored further and further away from the truth.
— Savannah Guthrie (@SavannahGuthrie) January 22, 2019
In all of Indian Country, Native people don’t have as much access to media influencers and power as this one white 17-year-old kid. And now, he gets to say what happened. Like the white men who came before him, he gets to rewrite history.
But I know what I saw.
I know what I saw when I learned the history of U.S. soldiers rounding up my tribe at gunpoint and putting us in stockades where we perished in droves. I know what I saw when I read that six days before the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln ordered the largest execution in U.S. history of 38 Dakota men. I know what I saw when my South Dakota friends shared how hockey fans poured beer on their elementary school children, called them racial slurs, and the local paper blamed the kids. I know what I saw when army tanks and water cannons met peaceful protesters on the prairies of North Dakota. I know what I saw when that angry white woman followed me, yelled at me to just get over it, it was so long ago. She told me I shouldn’t believe the lies they put in books; I shouldn’t believe the crushing weight of our shared history.
And I know what I saw when a calm and steadfast Native elder sang the anthem of our contemporary resistance and was mocked, jeered, and ridiculed by a throng of young, white, exceptionally privileged boys.
The privilege, the racism, the searing hate in the video is undeniable. The only question is whether or not we will call it what it is or — as so often happens — rewrite history.
Rebecca Nagle is a Citizen of Cherokee Nation and a two spirit (queer) woman. She is a writer and organizer living in Baltimore, MD.