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Centering Nathan Phillips

On January 18th, after marching in the Indigenous Peoples March, Nathan Phillips found himself in the company of white schoolchildren. Nicholas Sandmann and his classmates from Covington Catholic High School—many of them clad in "Make America Great Again" hats and shirts—were seen in a video surrounding Phillips and supposedly heckled the 64-year-old Omaha Nation elder. Currently, there is debate surrounding who actually started the confrontation, what the students said and what they actually believe in politically. Nonetheless, this incident shows how media in the United States plays an active role in upholding present systems of racial inequity, rather than seizing on an opportunity to work with and highlight the issues unique to indigenous peoples. 

We cannot ignore the social implications of the boys' actions. Their actions—both before and after the event—display the way white supremacy is reproduced in the United States. Prior to interacting with Nathan Phillips, these boys were attending the March for Life rally, in support of repealing constitutionally-protected reproductive rights. The words on Sandmann’s hat, and the social implications of wearing the hat, communicate the implicit racism underlying his actions loud and clear. Despite the backtracking news organizations have done, his clothing choice and the disrespect he appeared to show to Phillips are perhaps enough to judge his moral character. 

After the incident, Sandmann’s family hired a PR firm to handle his damaged public reputation, and there are now calls to withhold judgement from the boys—a privilege children of color are not afforded, especially in confrontations with the police. As soon as the incident occurred, some  media jumped in to action, drawing attention away from Sandmann and his classmates, and attempting to characterize their actions as “misunderstood.”

It's significant that the boys attended a Catholic school. There have been some calls for Covington Catholic to respond to the event, as if their response could be anything but hollow. The Catholic Church has been described by certain scholars as an active agent of colonialism in the Americas, from appropriating land from indigenous peoples to operating assimilative boarding schools in the United States and Canada. These schools were aimed at destroying indigenous culture and tribes by stripping them of their native languages and connection to their elders, resulting in what some have argued to be “cultural genocide.” In this context, any apology from Covington Catholic or the Catholic Church rings hollow unless it involves actively supporting native sovereignty—such as through a some form of reparation program

White supremacy is also upheld by the preponderance of news coverage dedicated to determining whether Nicholas Sandmann and his classmates are racist, while only a fraction of that coverage has been dedicated to interviewing Nathan Phillips or reporting on issues the Indigenous Peoples March centered. The goal of the march was to draw attention to missing and murdered indigenous women, the government shutdown’s effect on reservation life, voter suppression on reservations, and police brutality. Indigenous peoples face ongoing post-colonial brutality, and despite the massive media attention surrounding events directly after the march, the march itself has received little media attention. 

The lack of indigenous people included in the narrative surrounding this event displays the ongoing erasure of indigenous peoples in the United States. Nearly 87 percent of elementary and secondary school history books portray Native Americans as existing exclusively before 1900; now, they are being ignored even when at the center of a national conversation. This centering of the white narrative is once again a mechanism that supports the perpetuation of white America as the one true story in the mainstream, which all other cultural narratives must be measured against. 

As a community, we must think about how our conversations surrounding national headlines continue to support the institutions and whitewashed narrative of the United States. This event shows us how white individuals are protected so that they can continue with their lives without facing serious consequences. Ignoring elder Nathan Phillips, and the issues central to the march he was present for, aid—whether willfully or not—in the ongoing post-colonial erasure of indigenous peoples in the United States and the problems indigenous people want to solve. 

This was written by The Chronicle's Editorial Board, which is made up of student members from across the University and is independent of the editorial staff.

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