Nathan Phillips and Covington Catholic: An Indigenous woman’s view

Elder Nathan Phillips

Millions around the world were outraged by the scene of white teenagers wearing “Make America Great Again” caps harassing Native elder Nathan Phillips (Omaha Nation) as he was drumming and singing. It was captured on video after the Indigenous People’s March in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 19. Among other things, the racists circled around him and did “tomahawk chop” moves, mocked him and chanted “Build that wall!” referring to Donald Trump’s anti-migrant obsession that has furloughed federal workers and cut off government services for over a month.

These would-be Hitler Youth are students at Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky, an institution with a history of racist outrages and priest sex abuse scandals. They came to Washington to attend an annual right-wing rally against women’s reproductive rights, the so-called March for Life, held on the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion.

Now, a racist backlash has set in, attempting to paint the Indigenous elder as the provocateur and the MAGA teens as victims of “fake news.” The charge is led by the white supremacist in chief, whose White House press secretary told reporters, “We’ve reached out and voiced our support” to the Covington students.

For an eyewitness account of the incident by a participant in the Indigenous People’s March, read “Staring Down the Smug Face of American Violence.”

Here’s my personal reaction to what happened.

As a Native woman watching the video of Lekshi (Uncle) Nathan Phillips, I felt proud. I knew that Lekshi is not only an elder who deserves to be respected. He is a warrior and has lived an activist’s life.

I knew my beloved Lekshi was a water protector to the very end of the Standing Rock anti-pipeline uprising and that he participated in many other struggles to defend our people. He was a Vietnam era veteran of the Marines, though he did not get shipped to Vietnam. But he is a warrior for his people. I felt proud watching him sing and drum in the face of those Covington kids mocking his song.

Lekshi Phillips was taken from his family when he was a child, growing up without his nation around him. He turned to alcohol, but then he also became sober nearly 40 years ago. He lost his beloved wife a few years back to cancer. His life is like so many Indigenous lives, full of the pain caused by racism, and also full of love for his people. He worked for many years to help Native youth and make things better for them.

In Native political prisoner Leonard Peltier’s statement of support, released Jan. 22, he tells us that the song that Nathan Phillips sang in order to defuse the situation in Washington is a Northern Cheyenne song that has been used for decades as an American Indian Movement (AIM) honoring song. It is an old Cheyenne song that was later used in memory of Raymond Yellow Thunder, an Oglala elder who was murdered by whites in Gordon, Neb.

The kind of taunting and disrespect seen in the video is not new to Indigenous peoples. We are disrespected on a daily basis. In all too many areas, we have cans and other items hurled at us from the windows of passing vehicles. We are taunted by offensive costumes at Halloween, stereotypical roles in the media, and the use of sacred Native imagery and racist mascots for sports teams. We are taunted with erasure. This disrespect is a key part of settler colonialism and capitalism.

Photo: Emma Rose

The march that Lekshi Phillips participated in celebrated Indigenous solidarity, part of a effort to remind the U.S. government that we are still here. This march and the issues it raised were largely ignored by mainstream media such as CNN. They silence us. Think about how rarely you hear an Indigenous person actually speaking about our issues on television. So why does the bourgeois press make this the big news out of Indian Country that they decide to notice, when there is so much going on in Native communities?

News agencies need to hire more Native journalists who could cover our stories from our perspective — like our missing and murdered Indigenous sisters and the fight to free our Brother Leonard Peltier, who has been wrongly imprisoned for 44 years now. But now they will devote countless hours to featuring the “brave” young men from Covington Catholic who somehow were “assaulted” by an elder with a hand drum, smearing Nathan Phillips while continuing to silence Indigenous voices and issues.

The Catholic Church is also in this up to its ears. It is the same church that converted millions of Indigenous people at the point of a sword. They ran the missions in California that enslaved Native peoples, even making a saint out of Junípero Serra. Their priests and nuns ran many of the residential schools across North America where thousands of Indigenous children were abused and beaten for speaking their languages. The Catholic Church sent known pedophile priests to parishes on reservations, not caring what happened to our children. It is the same church that has refused to rescind its racist Doctrine of Discovery.

Some people have suggested that the Covington bigots be punished by doing community service at a reservation. Personally, I do not think Indigenous people are a teaching moment for white people. It’s not a punishment to do community service at a reservation. Nor should it be our job to teach them to have respect for other humans.