Lakota People’s Law Project
Omaha Nation elder Nathan Phillips gained sudden and unwanted fame after a YouTube video went viral showing him being mocked by a group of Catholic high school students wearing MAGA (“Make America Great Again”) hats while he was singing a traditional Native song at the conclusion of the Indigenous Peoples March at the Lincoln Memorial on Friday. Now, he says he’d like to use what occurred as a teachable moment.
He’s offering to travel as a delegate representing the international coalition behind the Indigenous Peoples March to Covington Catholic High School in Northern Kentucky and have a dialog about cultural appropriation, racism, and the importance of listening to and respecting diverse cultures.
“Race relations in this country and around the world have reached a boiling point,” said Phillips. “It is sad that on the weekend of a holiday when we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., racial hostility occurred on the steps of the Lincoln memorial, where King gave his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.”
Phillips and others were closing the Indigenous Peoples March with a prayer ceremony in their permitted area when, videos show, two groups without permits—Black Hebrew Israelites and the high school students—began arguing. Phillips said he approached and stepped between the two groups in an effort to quell the burgeoning conflict through spiritual song.
“Unfortunately, much of the students’ behavior was understood by me and those with me as a mockery of our cultures,” said Phillips. For example, he said, nearly half of the students were, at one point, making the “tomahawk chop” motion popular at sporting events.
“I have read the statement from Nick Sandmann, the student who stared at me for a long time. He did not apologize, and I believe there are intentional falsehoods in his testimony,” Phillips continued. “But I have faith that human beings can use a moment like this to find a way to gain understanding from one another.”
Phillips expressed appreciation for the statements from the school and the mayor of Covington that mockery and taunting are not representative of the compassion, respect, and other inclusive values they want to teach. “So, let’s create space for the teaching of tolerance to happen,” he said.
Phillips, in collaboration with the Indigenous Peoples March and the Lakota People’s Law Project, is also seeking a meeting with Vatican officials—ideally Pope Francis himself, who has apologized to American Indians for the “grave sins of colonialism”—to discuss what role the Church might be willing to play in reconciling the Catholic community worldwide with Indigenous people.
“We feel that there is a distinct lack of understanding and appreciation of Native peoples and traditions worldwide. It’s time to address the indecency of culturally appropriating our ritual movements and songs for the enjoyment of non-Native peoples,” said Phillips.
Lakota People’s Law Project attorney and Indigenous Peoples March spokesperson Chase Iron Eyes witnessed the events at the Lincoln Memorial firsthand. He said he’s not surprised that the video’s impact was so strong and its reach so instantly broad because the youths took over and disrespected a sacred space wearing MAGA garb and chanting slogans in support of President Donald Trump.
“The kids must not understand what their choices in attire and expression represent in a time when our president openly mocks Native Americans and closes the borders to Indigenous children,” Iron Eyes said. “Racist rhetoric and actions are being normalized at the highest levels of the American government. Still, we have hope that Native elders, high school students, and Catholic leaders can come together and reach a better understanding of each other.”
Phillips, the Indigenous Peoples March and the Lakota People’s Law Project are preparing to make overtures to set up meetings with the students, their community and Catholic Church officials.
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The Lakota People's Law Project is part of the 501(c)(3) Romero Institute, a nonprofit law and policy center.