A high schooler wearing a MAGA baseball cap taunted and mocked Native American elder Nathan Phillips as he chanted and beat his drum on Friday, January 18th during the Indigenous Peoples March. What’s worse, the teenage boy from Kentucky’s Covington Catholic High School was surrounded by a mob of students cheering him on. At times, shouting, “Build that wall! Build that wall!” The students were attending an anti-abortion march for life.
But this did not break Phillips, a Vietnam Veteran and former director of the Native Youth Alliance.
I missed all of this by just a few minutes. I left the Indigenous Peoples March just shortly before this horrific incident took place. After we left, my friends and I grabbed a bite to eat and reflected with other marchers on how satisfying it felt to be surrounded by other native people who also want to help make the world a better place.
“We walked in peace and shared our visions about our hopes for the world and after we left, this happened. The elders kept playing their music and holding space but this video brings awareness to the dividing factor of our country,” said the founder of Around the World Beauty and March attendee Stephanie Flor.
To go from such a positive and uplifting day to this recent hateful rhetoric was a shock to my system. I immediately spoke to my fellow indigenous peoples to see how they were doing.
“I’m still hurting. But this will bring us strength,” said march attendee Sara Sandoval.
She was rubbing Phillips back as he said, “I heard them saying ‘build that wall, build that wall,’” while wiping away tears.
“This is indigenous land, you’re not supposed to have walls here. We never did for a millennia. We never had a prison; we always took care of our elders, took care of our children, always provided for them, taught them right from wrong. I wish I could see that energy— put that energy into making this country really, really great.”
“This will force people who have been on the fence to feel something and have an internal dialog of what side they want to be on,” Sandoval stressed.
When I heard the news the following morning, I’ll admit that I was filled with rage. I couldn’t believe that a bunch of ignorant and hateful high schoolers would go to such great lengths to mock an elder like that. What is this world coming to?
Since I was covering the march for HipLatina, word was out that I was here. My inbox was flooding with messages urging me to speak out on this. I am grateful to everyone who reached out. As I read what happened, my chest grew tight and my eyes watered up.
I haven’t been this frustrated since I was in Standing Rock.
In 2016, peaceful protestors were taken down by rubber bullets, physically beaten and died because they were trying to protect their sacred land. But it wasn’t being covered in the media. So I, along with Nathalie Farfan, went and covered it for the podcast we co-founded Morado Lens, where we turn taboo subjects on their head to empower women of color. We wanted to let people know what was really going on there. I also wrote a personal essay for HuffPost and NBC about my experience there.
As I was heading over to the Women’s March, my friends and I got into a Lyft and kept looking into more and more updates about the incident. Then that spurred a conversation about what good could come from this, which seemed too far-fetched for me at the time. I couldn’t fathom the idea. All I could see was red.
I was disheartened. The day felt tainted. I was overwhelmed with frustration.
Flores told me to take a deep breath and said, “Now people will see what the problem is. This will bring awareness to indigenous rights issues.”
Her words eased my worries. Then, our Lyft driver kindly interrupted and said, “I’ve been listening to your conversation and I just want to say that your parents should be proud of you. I overhear all kinds of conversations and most of it is centered around boys, makeup, and parties. But you all are talking about serious issues that our youth needs to know more about. Keep doing what you’re doing.”
Tears ran down my face. I thanked him for his words because I was emotionally triggered. I put so much effort into surrounding myself with good people with genuine intentions but then I see that there are people like those teenagers that act mindlessly and I almost start to lose faith in humanity. But his words brought me back to life and allowed me to refocus my energy on the good.
The march was peaceful, joyful and inspiring. The speeches by elders and numerous indigenous leaders stressed unity, proactive action after the march and asking to keep our political leaders accountable so we don’t have to keep fighting for basic human rights.
I include myself in that fight because I am them and they are me. I am an indigenous woman of Peruvian descent who has spent over 10 years producing content for media outlets such as WNBC, HuffPost, and CNN. In all of my years reporting, this was the first time I could relate to the story I was covering.
Their fight was my fight.
I marched with my fellow indigenous peoples to show solidarity. Because there are still pipelines, like Standing Rock, being proposed to be built on sacred land putting our clean water at risk of contamination. Because indigenous women around the country are still missing and no one is doing anything about it to stop it. I am marching to keep telling our stories or it would be like we never happened. I came back from Standing Rock determined to keep telling our stories to remind the rest of the world that we will keep trying to make the world a better place and we aren’t leaving.
I cannot tell you how many times I have seen the faces of those teenagers in others I’ve met along the way. It triggered me because they are precisely the problem in this country.
MAGA followers, protestors and fellow haters, you will not ruin our march with your hate. I come from a long line of people who have survived genocide, colonization and more till this day. Your behavior is a minor bump in the road that speaks to who you are, not us.
It is not the responsibility of our peoples to help you realize you’re in the wrong, it’s yours. We aren’t here to teach you how to be civil, that’s on you. The most we can do is stand peacefully in the face your aggressive taunts, to lead by example. You will not break us.
I hope every possible consequence for every teenager who was there comes to fruition. I hope you realize that you’re on native land and you should show the native people, who survived genocide from those who look just like you, respect and honor. I hope you learn from this because the reason you did what you did is because you don’t know any better.
That kind of hate isn’t innate, it is learned. You are just a product of your environment. Hate has and will never spark positive change, love will. Just you wait.