Nathan Phillips and the face of fascism

Thousands of Indigenous peoples from across the U.S. and Canada, from Guatemala and the Caribbean to Australia and Papua New Guinea, gathered on Jan. 18, for the first-ever Indigenous Peoples March in Washington, D.C. Starting outside the Bureau of Indian Affairs, people then marched to the National Mall for a rally.

The march was called to raise awareness of issues affecting Indigenous nations and communities around the world, including border control, police brutality, protecting Native lands and especially the epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two Spirits. Toward the end of the rally, some of the marchers proceeded toward the Lincoln Monument for a closing. (

Among the group approaching the monument was Vietnam-era veteran and Omaha elder Nathan Phillips. This elder was drumming and singing when they entered the area where there was a crowd of MAGA-hat-wearing white male students from Covington Catholic High School in northern Kentucky. The white students began to whoop and taunt the Native marchers. They chanted and gestured with the racist Atlanta baseball fans’ “tomahawk chop” to harass and intimidate Phillips and the other Native people coming into the monument area.

One of the students, Nick Sandmann, moved to confront 64-year-old Native elder Phillips, blocked him from moving and stared, inches away, in his face.

Phillips reacted in the situation responsibly, as he began to sing and play the American Indian Movement song into the face of hatred. Phillips is a former director of the Native Youth Alliance; he also holds an annual ceremony honoring Indigenous veterans in Arlington National Cemetery.

Covington Catholic, an expensive male-only prep school, had sent the students to D.C. to participate in the annual march against women’s reproductive rights. There were priest chaperones at the scene. According to witnesses, the priest at the monument had apparently approved of the students launching into racist anti-Native chanting.

The face of a fascist

Covington High has a history of racist and bigoted behavior in its student body. It has allowed students to put on “blackface” to harass Black players on opposing school teams. A young woman broadcast a video of being aggressively and threateningly harassed on the street while walking past of group of Covington students. Another video recorded the students as “looking for a fight.”

Covington Diocese made the news May 2018 when student Christian Bales was banned from giving the valedictorian speech at Holy Cross high school because he is gay. ( Current Trump-appointee White House counsel Pat Cipollone is a Covington graduate.

Native people have a history of genocide and a long memory of what genocide looks like similar to the knowledge in the Black community of lynch mobs and slavery. Indigenous people face racist incidents every day. What was different this time?

This footage went viral and everyone saw it. The face of the white student who got in Nathan Phillips’ face and blocked him from walking away from the monument was the face of genocide and hatred. Most of the faces in his crowd held that same grinning sneer — that is the face of a fascist.

But this time the world was watching. Black people saw a look on a white face which is “all too familiar.” Poor whites saw rich boys acting as a public menace in D.C. and knew they’d get away with it. Antifascists saw the hate-filled faces they had seen in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017.

Everyone saw the hate-filled eyes and smirk of someone who wants to hurt or kill you — the look of a racist, a woman-hater, a homophobe or a transphobe. Once you have seen that look, that face, you don’t forget it.

So non-Native communities got, for once, a close-up look at that face in a near-mob attack on a Native veteran elder. And conversations erupted online about racism against Native people — among African Americans, Latinxs, Asians, Arabs, as well as whites who oppose fascism but have no consciousness about Native lives.

An education about Indigenous life

This was an education about Indigenous life for millions. The last time this happened was briefly during the struggle against the Dakota Pipeline at Standing Rock reservation. The footage of North Dakota sheriffs using water cannons, rubber bullets and stun grenades to attack Native water protectors and land defenders at Standing Rock in freezing winter weather was rare and hard-fought-for media coverage.

Native erasure (the across-the-board exclusion of Indigenous peoples and nations in the media, education and consciousness) kicked back in rapidly after the Lincoln monument incident as Covington student Nick Sandmann was coached by the Runswitch PR firm, run by a longtime Republican operative, and provided with talking points. The corporate media rushed to whitewash the racist mob and paint them as “innocent,” just as if the networks had been handed a State Dept. press release. And the well-known excuse dredged up whenever rich white youth have done crimes of havoc began to echo through the media — but “they’re good boys.”

Dallas Goldtooth, spokesperson for Indigenous Environmental Network, stated, “The behavior … that the kids enacted is utterly inexcusable — the longer videos show a deeply rooted sense of superiority and privilege that white people feel toward Indigenous people.  Let’s call it out for what it is — white supremacy.”(, Jan. 27)

Trump invited Sandmann to the White House — an act like many of his public events designed to encourage racist attacks. Native media and spokespeople — see #NativeTwitter — have received hundreds of hate mails and threats this past week. (

But the window was open for a short while. Stop Native erasure. Smash white supremacy. Build Black and Brown solidarity.

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