Indigenous People in Their Own Words, Part I: The Rarity

By Mariam Williams

By now, you’ve probably seen at least one video of a confrontation at the Lincoln Memorial Friday, Jan. 18, between white male high school students and an indigenous elder. As mea culpas continue from journalists and other media personalities who accused the boys of racism and bigotry before videos taken from other angles appeared online, I find myself examining whose version is being accepted as the truth and wondering whose perspective will be preserved as such.

I hadn’t checked Twitter in a few days when a friend alerted me via text that Covington Catholic, a school between my hometown (Louisville, Ky.) and my friend’s (Cincinnati, Oh.), was trending. The first video I saw explaining why it was trending showed in its foreground a Native elder and a white boy face to face, probably no more than a foot away from each other. The elder was drumming and singing. The boy, wearing a MAGA hat, looked the man in his eyes and smirked. Boys in the middle- and background, all of them white and several also wearing MAGA hats, laughed, gawked, cheered, and raised their cell phones. One boy clapped along with the drum. (The Black Hebrew Israelites do not appear in the video at all.)

The first words I heard about the incident from a direct participant were those of Nathan Phillips, the Omaha Nation man in the video playing the drum and singing. Intermittently wiping away tears he recalled hearing the teens chant, “Build that wall!” He said, “This is indigenous land. We’re not supposed to have walls here. We never did. For millennium, before anyone else came here, we never had walls. We never had a prison. We always took care of our elders, took care of our children. We always provided for them. We taught them right from wrong. I wish I could see that energy of the young men … put that energy into making this country really, really great.”

 

My initial reaction was threefold: unsurprised at the behavior of the teens, moved by Phillips’ tears, and smugly satisfied that a Native American elder gave a first-person account and that his account was the one the media ran with. His voice was the voice of the incident, and his voice was heard all over Twitter. He owned the story. 

Then came Monday. 

There were new videos from new angles and different timeframes. Then came the relief that this young group of Trump supporters couldn’t possibly have been disrespectful (at best) and were, in fact, the victims of overzealous retweeters—relief masked as retractions and analysis that the scene was more complicated than originally understood. Then came the Today show interviewing Nick Sandmann, the smirking teen, Wednesday morning. Thursday morning, nearly one week after the confrontation, Today returned to Phillips.

But I want to stay on Saturday for a minute, because in the historical record, in the pamphlets, newspapers, broadsides, and political cartoons preserved from the Colonial, Revolutionary, and post-Revolutionary eras, it is extremely rare for an indigenous person’s perspective to be the first or main story the broader public hears, and rarer still for that voice not to be filtered through whites—whether they were combatants or allies. 

Nathan Phillips got the chance on Friday and Saturday to tell what happened, but he wasn’t reduced to a narrator of the viral footage. He was an elder, an activist, and someone who felt led to use prayer and a blessing song to navigate the racial tension he observed between groups of black and white males at the Lincoln Memorial. His humanity remained intact. A full picture of Native folks’ humanity, too, is rare to find when looking for Native voices in the historical record.

So much of what historians depend on to research and understand the past was written, and as Black Futures Lab co-founder Rasheeda Phillips said at one of our listening sessions, remembering persons and events in writing hasn’t always been the tradition of communities of color. Even when historians want the perspectives of people whose lives haven’t traditionally been preserved in the archives, this methodological difference poses a challenge. 

In a digital age, however, a conversation, story, or family history that ordinarily may have been passed down orally might appear on Twitter or Instagram as video. (Quick sleuthing suggests the video I saw in director Ava DuVernay’s feed was reposted from Instagram user ka_ya11, a user who identifies as a member of the Dakota nation. Notably, social media platforms often are the way people of color amplify one another’s work and perspectives.) These digital platforms are their own archive, and traditional news platforms turn to them to find and substantiate news and opinions. 

Monday through Wednesday of this past week, news outlets returned to privileging voices, experiences, and accounts that were white, male, and—given that the students involved attend a private school—wealthy. Did the media simply give a more balanced view by giving Sandmann a chance to share his side of the story? In a world where colonialism, genocide of Native peoples, and their imprisonment in religious schools never happened, yes. In the world we live in, the world where it did, the media simply rushed to absolve young white men (and their chaperones) of collective responsibility and individual malice. From an archival perspective, they repeated mistakes of collectors of the past, even when they didn’t have to. That is how ingrained within America’s DNA white supremacy is. 

But in 25 to 100 years, what will hold more weight to people looking back at this moment—viral, instantaneous postings, the next-day regrets of experienced journalists, or Nathan Phillips, an indigenous man, in his own words?