My sibling, Autumn, and I arrived at the rally for the first Indigenous Peoples’ March with our hearts full and our spirits high. After an unexpectedly long journey navigating the public transit schedule from Baltimore, we were eager to join the demonstration. The day’s march had settled on the plaza of the Lincoln Memorial to raise awareness for missing and murdered indigenous women.
Indigenous women are one of the most vulnerable populations in this country; they are disproportionately affected by domestic violence, sexual assault, murder, human trafficking, and kidnapping. We had come to represent the women from our own Mvskoke family who are victims of these crimes. And through the January cold, we were greeted with the kind of immediate affection and welcome that is so often reserved for family.
We quickly joined other demonstrators in a circle, with various drummers and singers leading us in dance. One man in particular stood out to me: He was a tall elder in the center of the circle, beating his drum and chanting.
We met the kind and beautiful Sol Santipi from Oregon, who popped open her bright pink suitcase, pulling out medicines of potent mountain sage, sweet lavender, strong tobacco, and fragrant cedar. Her gift sits next to me now as I write this, searching for the words of what happened as the sun set over the white marble monument and the red hats began to overrun the plaza.
By now, you have probably seen the video of what came next. There were just a few of us left at that point, chatting and lingering on the steps of the memorial. Across the square, a large group began to form, full of young boys in red hats and red shirts. All of it emblazoned with that tired slogan many of us now wearily associate with white supremacy, racism, xenophobia, and fascism. I had never seen so much MAGA apparel in the flesh until then.
As more of the “MAGA teens” flooded the plaza from behind us, our small group of remaining demonstrators moved forward, away from them. We were following Nathan Phillips, who played his drum with confidence and courage, and sang a sacred prayer for peace — to de-escalate the growing nervousness on the plaza. It was Nathan who’d lead us in the circle dance. A tall man with a drum and voice like his is hard to miss. And now the MAGA boys noticed Nathan, too.
From that point, things escalated quickly. We were surrounded by the boys, and we were alarmingly outnumbered. As we attempted to continue our path and move through the crowd, the boys closed in around us, until finally, one particular boy stood in front of Nathan and refused to let us pass.
Nathan stopped walking, but he kept singing and playing his drum — staring right into the smirking boy’s eyes. We all huddled around him as the other boys began to push, prod, and bump us into a tighter and tighter cluster. They were mocking Nathan’s sacred music with purposefully disrespectful dancing and a perverted imitation of his singing. Their imitations were the racist tropes of “Indian chants” — the stereotypical grunting and “hiyahiyahiyas” of representations past.
As the boys molded our huddle, I felt panic growing in my gut.
I felt trapped. There were so many of them around us that I couldn’t see out beyond them. All I could see was cold faces full of empty laughter, boys intoxicated on their own false sense of power, control, and entitlement.
But Nathan was steadfast. His drumming was constant and he exuded calm, grace, stability. He was unshaken. And it was his example that kept us all together. His singing, his drumming, his prayer. When we were surrounded by the sneering, jeering crowd, his voice was the one I latched onto. The boys alternated between their mock chanting and breaking out into familiar chants.
“Build the wall!”
“Gone in 2020!”
As tensions grew over the course of the encounter, I pulled out my phone, along with several others. Our videos became the documentation of this latest example of bigotry against indigenous lives. But make no mistake, it is not the first, and sadly it will probably not be the last.
People are responding so strongly to these videos because they are so emblematic of the violence that indigenous people have suffered for over 500 years in the United States. We have been raped, relocated, trafficked, separated, degraded, demoralized, and massacred by the United States government and a culture of media, economy, education, and religion that has dehumanized indigenous people for the entire history of this stolen country. Presently, this country continues to poison indigenous people by defiling our water and pumping drugs and alcohol into indigenous communities; regulate native bodies through tribal numbers and blood quantum laws; and force assimilation (culturally, spiritually).
These are tactics of genocide. An ongoing, unrecognized genocide.
These videos are a brutal reminder of a very real unfinished battle that indigenous people are still fighting. We are fighting to be acknowledged, to be counted, to be part of the future. Quite simply, we are fighting to exist.
But these videos are also a testament: a testament to the bravery, dignity, grace, strength, passion, and power of indigenous people. Leaders like Nathan are essential to the survival of indigenous people because they hold experience of our history and traditions. Indigenous elders have given their lives to protect our identities, our sovereignty, our lands, our people, our ways of being, only to be met time and time again with violence — or at the very least, the smug, smirking faces of our oppressors like the boys of Covington Catholic High School.
In the end, it is education that will help us course-correct the history of indigenous people: education for and by each other, education by experience, education by example. When you see the videos of the confrontation from the Indigenous Peoples March, it is easy to see the disgusting behavior on display by the boys of Covington Catholic High School. But do not miss the lesson in perseverance, resilience, and dedication put forth by Nathan’s example.
I will never forget it.