The incident with the Covington Catholic school boys has been an astonishing exhibition of not only an intensely polarized country, but a dizzying conglomeration of issues. There were countless mixed messages contained in the assortment of video clips of Nathan Phillips and Nick Sandmann who appeared to be in a standoff. As an American Indian journalist and academic trained to analyze information from all possible angles and come to some kind of understanding of the evidence, I agree that much of the reactionary rhetoric and hateful response to the Covington students was misguided and outright wrong. The students did not deserve death threats.
But I think there are bigger questions to ask that get to the root of why there is so much outrage that is apparently so easily triggered. Who is outraged, and what are they outraged about? What are the different interpretive narratives circulating, and are they raising legitimate concerns, despite the “unfairness” the students have been handed?
I think different people will approach those questions in different ways. From an American Indian perspective, I can say that the confluence of factors of the incident are stunningly complex, and arguably, not understood by the vast majority of people who viewed the various videos. Nick Sandmann’s statement is incapable of capturing the complexity of the situation, just as Nathan Phillips’ cannot tell a larger story. It’s not a matter of the boy’s actions simply being misunderstood and mischaracterized. Nor is it about Phillips inciting a confrontation.
Factoring in the Black Hebrew Israelites, American Indians entering the scene singing the American Indian Movement song (a song of resistance, victory, and healing), and the fact that an all-boys, predominantly white Catholic high school group who were present to protest woman’s rights over their bodies, and you have a toxic brew of ingredients backed by hundreds of years of injustice at the hands of white men fueling the conflagration, and providing a much larger context.
The MAGA hats and shirts were the visual cue that brought all those things into focus in a way that made anything but a confrontation impossible. And the adult chaperones allowed it all to happen.
Even if we accept that Sandmann was not being overtly disrespectful (which I don’t), and was, as he claimed, trying to defuse the situation (copy-catting Phillips’s original claims), there was still obvious disrespect in the crowd. There was mocking (tomahawk chops and fake Indian singing and dancing); there was cultural appropriation (a faux Maori haka); there was the fact that Phillips was surrounded by the boys in a way that can easily be interpreted as threatening.
And there was the statement, “it’s not rape if you enjoy it.”
The question also needs to be asked: would Sandmann’s stare-down in the face of a singing elder have been tolerated had the elder been, say, a white priest? I think we all know the answer to that question. How in the world could an elderly man playing a drum and singing have been construed by him as threatening, as he implies in his statement?
And the comment about “lands being stolen, that’s the way the world works,” that gets at the very root of the problem.
This incident is exemplary of not just racism, but of systemic colonialism bent on Indigenous extermination. For American Indians, unlike any other demographic in the US, while racism is part of a genocidal system, it is not the defining characteristic of it—elimination is. The elimination of Indigenous peoples has always been about obtaining our lands and replacing us. That is the unspoken, invisible context framing what’s really going on here.
This history is the irreducible core element of this conflict. There is no getting around it, and any analysis that sidesteps it just contributes to the whitewashing of history and upholds the settler colonial system that American Indians like Nathan Phillips are still fighting. The boys’ actions—however convoluted—the lack of action on the part of the chaperones, and even the vile, hateful words of the Black Hebrew Israelites are all part of a larger reality that is not being acknowledged by the majority of the media and other commentators.
The entire incident is a classic display of settler privilege and fragility. Only in a society that systematically and simultaneously denies and justifies its genocidal foundation can an elderly Native man singing and playing a drum surrounded by hundreds of frenzied white males dressed in attire that to American Indians represents the colonial wrecking ball be construed as menacing.
It is the replaying of a centuries-old narrative. Native people standing their ground, peacefully or not, are a threat to the white settler population and are, therefore, assailable. The assault is always justifiable, and accountability is absent. White Catholic school boys—like their interloping pioneer ancestors before them—are thus painted as the innocent victims while Nathan Phillips is the degraded Native—the savage, a liar, always suspect, undeserving of a legitimate perspective, let alone an apology.
Until the US accounts for its history at every level of society, this scenario will play out relentlessly, in endless configurations.
About the Author
Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville Confederated Tribes) is a lecturer of American Indian Studies at California State University San Marcos, and a consultant and educator in environmental justice policy planning. Her research interests focus on Indigenous nationalism, self-determination, environmental justice, and education. She also works within the field of critical sports studies, examining the intersections of indigeneity and the sport of surfing. She is co-author with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz of Beacon Press’s “All the Real Indians Died Off” and 20 Other Myths About Native Americans, and her forthcoming book, As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice from Colonization to Standing Rock, is scheduled for release by Beacon Press in April 2019. Follow her on Twitter at @ and visit her website.