How It Feels To Be An Indigenous American At This Moment In History

Getty / Uproxx

Last weekend, the Twitter-verse and mainstream media blew up with a video showing private high school students openly mocking an Omaha elder, Nathan Phillips, while he sang a song. The confrontation was indicative of colonial indifference, superiority even, towards an Indigenous American, his culture, and very space. The resulting screencap — one student smirking while his friends looked on — was seen around the world.

Watching this unfold from Germany. I felt flooded with outrage. I left America because of shit like this. I just got so tired of the race-baiting every single day of my life. Whether that was employers saying to my face they don’t hire “Indians” because I’ll just get drunk and don’t come into work (a racist assumption, but more on that later) to literally having fellow college students yell across quads for me to go back to the rez. Every day of your life in America, as an Indigenous person, is a struggle.

As I watched all of these videos, I didn’t say, “How dare they?” and start clutching my buffalo bone beads. It was a knowing, “Yup… Same ol’ America I know and love… but had to leave.”

As the videos continued to roll in, there ended up being some murkiness about what happened. But it was very clear that a group of privileged white kids from a Catholic school in Kentucky were having their fun at the expense of a Marine veteran whose culture they felt safe to openly mock. If you were surprised by this, you haven’t been paying attention to the country you live in and the man elected to its highest office.

Immediately after the incident in DC, social media went crazy. People came out in droves to (rightfully) support Phillips. The smirking kid was doxxed and revealed to be Nick Sandmann. Allegedly, his home, family, and school were all flooded with death threats. To anyone sending death threats, I say this, as a member of an aggrieved group: Fucking stop. This is a kid, first of all, and he has the potential to change and evolve. His views can shift.

Those threats also set up the perfect storm of anti-white victimization that colonists need to perpetuate their narrative. Which, of course, is what happened next. Sandmann’s family hired a PR firm. The same PR firm it turns out helps the GOP soften the media’s view of their agenda. The same firm that is run by Senator Mitch McConnell’s adviser, Scott Jennings. In short order, the firm was instrumental in sourcing and releasing more videos from the incident which shows Phillips approaching the MAGA-hat-wearing high school students (not the other way around) and this was presented as some sort of exoneration for Sandmann and his classmates’ behavior? I swear, I’m not making this up. That’s all it took. Suddenly people were coming out of nowhere with apologies and defenses of Sandmann and Covington Catholic.

Sandmann said in his letter that the Covington students chants were positive and he didn’t hear them as “hateful or racist.” Maybe he’s acting in bad faith, but what’s more likely is that he — like almost all Americans — doesn’t even realize the depth of hatred towards Indigenous Americans and how that manifests every day. Does he see the Tomahawk chop as racist? Because I do.

That’s not to say that the Sandmann family shouldn’t lawyer up after receiving death threats. And kudos to them for being able to afford a PR firm to spin this story. But the very act of hiring a PR firm to spin this story means they need to spin it. This isn’t rocket science, folks. Is there a little murkiness created by the appearance of second and third videos? Perhaps. But from all appearances, the kids from Covington Catholic were running rampant and harassing people all day. So my or anyone’s tendency to err on the side of sympathy should be razor thin from the outset.

Still, there was, of course, more at play than met the eye. In the end, it seemed that members of two protests were escalating their violence towards each other — the Covington Catholic high school contingent and protesters associated with Black Israelites — and Nathan Phillips stepped in to quell the situation. Once he did that he was openly mocked. That last part isn’t really up for debate.

For me, a few thousand miles away, the story felt endemic of a much deeper issue in America. The vast majority of Americans have little to no knowledge of what Indigenous life is in America beyond extremely racists stereotypes many Americans (and football team owners) still spread every single day. It has to be reiterated again and again. 40 percent of Americans do not even believe Indigenous people exist. Indigenous women are raped (by non-Indigenous perpetrators) at rates four or more times more than anyone else in America. Indigenous kids are sent to jail or ripped from their families at rates that’ll leave you rubbing your eyes. Yet, as America, we keep letting this happen in silence.

Why? In part, it’s just racism. But, that racism stems from a severe lack of even basic knowledge about Indigenous history much less modern Indigenous life.

Here are two simple examples that come up often in conversation:

No, Indigenous Americans are not more likely to be alcoholics because of genetics. Besides that being literal Nazi Eugenics bullshit, it’s been thoroughly debunked by science. Do you want to know the real reason alcoholism is so rampant? It’s colonialists selling booze on reservations like crack dealers roaming through East L.A. in 1983 and it’s legitimately been classified as a crime against humanity and part of an ongoing genocide.

The science is clear. Indigenous Americans don’t have drinking problems because of some genetic fault. They have issues with alcoholism because they’re imprisoned in a society that’s actively destroying their culture and keeping them as second class citizens locked away on reservations and then feeding them alcohol for their own profit.

Example number two: No, Indigenous Americans do not have a lower I.Q. than anyone else. Besides the fact that I.Q.s are arbitrary ways to measure anything, much less intelligence, you’d have to discount every single instance of social standing Indigenous Americans live in to think this true. Yet, here we are.

The man in the tweet above is comparing Indigenous Americans to the straw man of Jews fleeing ghettos in 20th century fascist Europe. But Indigenous Americans are still trapped in their ghettos. They have yet to have the chance to escape, much less integrate into society (in their own country no less). That alone is proof positive that there is a fundamental misunderstanding — willful or not — of what is going on in this country (and Canada and Mexico and Brazil, etc.) when it comes to Indigenous Americans on or off the reservation.

Also, the person who designed the current Mars rover is Navajo, so Stefan Molyneux can shut the hell up.

How does this all link together? The incident at the Lincoln Memorial, the deep lack of knowledge about Native life in America, and the perfect storm that followed those two forces converging? Here’s what I know:

  • The vitriol aimed at those children online is an unacceptable response to their actions.
  • The media pitting one side’s word against another is an unacceptable response to a public protest that was heated and confusing.
  • Those kids throwing tomahawk chops and dancing around like they’re at a Redskins game is still deeply unacceptable behavior. One that, let’s face it, the whole country revels in.

Am I supposed to be mad at children for copying what an entire country of people do every time the Blackhawks or Indians or Braves or Chiefs or Redskins play? No. Sorry, I can’t. I can, however, be mad that their educators, parents, and leaders for refusing to give these kids a chance to change, grow, and, maybe, see their country for what is.

Phillips summed it up best when he stated recently, “I have faith that human beings can use a moment like this to find a way to gain understanding from one another.”

Those kids may not have the same politics as me or you. The may not have the same education but they’re still children. They can still be educated (honestly) about issues like what life for Indigenous folks in their country is really like. It’s possible, though it currently feels like a pipe dream because it seems we’re already locked into a narrative of distance, avoidance, and some he said/she said nonsense.

With Nick Sandmann is appearing on the Today Show alone and being interviewed by a white woman. I have to ask, why isn’t the Today Show having Sandmann and Phillips sitting down together to bring this country together so Sandmann can learn directly from an actual living Indigenous person? Isn’t that the best possible solution (Phillips has already appeared on CNN). Hell, Phillips has even offered to go to Kentucky and have a conversation with the very students who mocked him.

If we don’t start actually educating Americans (of every ilk) as to what is going on right now and historically with the Indigenous peoples of the Americas — across all the nations of the Americas — we’re not going to get anywhere. In fact, we might start slipping backward even more. And this really feels like a huge missed opportunity to shed some light. If people want to help they should view Nathan Phillips as a proxy for other Indigenous Americans, standing his ground to say “We’re here. It’s time for you to see us.”