On the steps outside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, a white teenager sporting the red cap accoutrements of the Trump campaign stands nose-to-nose with a bespectacled Native American elder singing and playing a hand drum. The teen is smirking – his expression, for me, oozes entitlement. Behind him an unruly crowd – all male, all white, many also wearing the conspicuous Maga apparel – is jeering the elder in a frenzy of Lord of the Flies privilege. (In another video, some of the boys can be seen cackling while war-whooping and making the tomahawk chop gesturepopularized by sports teams with Native American mascots like the Atlanta Braves.)
Against the rabble, the old man is steadfast. In the stare-down, he never breaks eye contact. He just keeps singing. Off-camera, you can hear one or two voices rising with his.
You probably didn’t recognize the song the elder is singing against the fracas, but I did: it’s the anthem of the American Indian Movement. We used to gather around the drum to sing it after powwow dance practice every Thursday night at the Intertribal Friendship House in Oakland, California. Some say it was composed to honor the life of Raymond Yellow Thunder, an Oglala Lakota beaten to death by two white men in Gordon, Nebraska, in 1972. Our elders told us to carry forward the legacy of the men and women who sang it.
When that clip first appeared on my Twitter feed, I could not click play. As an Indian, the fear of a face-to-face encounter with a sneering white superior is deeply engrained in my psychology. I cannot watch that film and not think about the youth hockey opponent who knocked me down while yelling “Indian boy!” Or the man who accused my father and I of stealing our own car. Or the Raiders fans who yelled epithets at a group of Native dancers and me performing for a heritage month celebration at their home game. Or the dirty looks I get in many parts of this country as a brown man with a braid hanging down my back.
I saw that thumbnail image and thought about the Indian agents who kidnapped and assaulted my grandmother and took her away to Catholic school. I thought about my relatives. I feared that men younger than I still believed us all to be inferior; that an elder who reminded me of uncles, cousins and so many other Native men I’ve met and loved could still be put in his place; that the songs we sing are, to the Maga youth, a laughingstock.
Many on the internet were moved as I was. But others were not. They saw, in the teens, their sons and their own adolescence. They feared that a social justice witch-hunt was afoot.
There were many ways to follow this story. They revealed less about what actually happened at the Lincoln Memorial on Friday and more about who has the power to tell the story and the biases underlying how that story is told. From opposite sides of the socioeconomic-political-cultural-racial divide, reporters and citizen journalists followed the facts in opposite directions.
We learned that the elder was a sacred pipe carrier, activist, veteran and boarding school survivor from the Omaha Nation named Nathan Phillips. We learned that he was a founder of the Native Youth Alliance who helped lead prayer walks after Standing Rock and participates in an annual gathering for Native veterans at Arlington National Cemetery. We learned that he was in town for the Indigenous Peoples March. Some of us noted that the Washington DC National Football League team name, the Redskins, is a dictionary-definition racial slur. And in later interviews, we learned that Phillips was singing to pray for the young men staring him down.
We learned that the youth was an 11th-grade student at the expensive all-boys Covington Catholic private school in Kentucky. (Upon learning this, some of us may have noted that private schools sprouted up in the south to preserve segregation.) We learned that his school has no women or people of color in authority positions. A photo has circulated of Covington Catholic basketball fans, some in black face, yelling at an African American opponent. We learned that his mother is a vice-president at Fidelity Investments. We learned that the school sent its students to the capital to participate in the anti-abortion March for Life.
And after we learned many of these details, we learned the boy’s name was Nicholas Sandmann and that his family hired a PR firm to respond to the controversy.
But as more videos and reports emerged, we also learned that there was a group of Black Hebrew Israelites who were yelling insults at both the students and the Native Americans. They may have instigated the confrontation. We learned that Phillips approached the students in part to defuse those tensions. We learned, surprisingly, that Sandmann is a fan of the politically conscious rapper Logic. And we learned, unsurprisingly, through Sandmann’s press release that the he does not believe what he did was hateful or racist.
It is the job of the press and the discerning reader and viewer to compile and synthesize these messy facts and statements into a coherent narrative. And in that task a great deal of the press and a large portion of the discerning have failed.
Early coverage of Phillips and Sandmann’s encounter was, for me, in a small sense, encouraging: outrage suggested that maybe the media and the multitude could grapple with anti-Indian racism. That my experience – what I and many other Native people felt when we watched that clip – could be met with compassion and perhaps even a moment of reflection on the enduring psychology of racial entitlement that snatched this continent out from under our ancestor’s feet and still today deprives elders like Nathan Phillips of their dignity.
But, as the days have passed, it seems that as soon as the story becomes more complicated – when a fuller picture emerges in all of its messy human detail – the Indigenous are no longer deserving of compassion. If it was Phillips who approached the Covington students, commentators suggest, then maybe the cacophony of laughter, war whoops, tomahawk chops and that smug grin was not what we saw: racism.
I hoped that this time their empathy was real, that the condemnation could withstand the obfuscation that is always the follow-up story: that the Native elder was the aggressor, that the black youth gunned down by the cops was actually a crook, that the hard-working immigrant is stealing your job. But it appears that a great deal of this nation – including its supposedly liberal Fourth Estate – is not ready to look at the nasty complexity of racism, power and privilege squarely in the face and tell the truth.