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Opinion The confrontation between the Covington students and Nathan Phillips is America, laid bare

Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and a columnist with The Winnipeg Free Press.

A student from Covington Catholic High School stands in front of native American veteran Nathan Phillips in Washington in this still image from a Jan. 18, 2019, video by Kaya Taitano.

SOCIAL MEDIA/Reuters

Every once in a while, history is laid bare in a moment.

That happened Friday as Omaha elder Nathan Phillips attempted to defuse a conflict between students from Kentucky’s Covington Catholic High School attending an anti-abortion rally in Washington and African-American members of the Black Hebrew Israelites, there to speak about their religion and the ongoing mistreatment of their people.

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Mr. Phillips was attending the Indigenous Peoples March, a gathering intended to bring awareness to worldwide injustices against Indigenous nations at the National Mall.

After the march had ended, Mr. Phillips says he saw a “disturbance” near the Lincoln Memorial – students from the Catholic high school being insulted by a small group of the Black Hebrew Israelites.

Fearing violence, Mr. Phillips intervened much in the way many of our elders do, offering a song and prayer of peace to bring communities together.

He did this fearlessly, but called it a “dangerous situation.”

“All of a sudden, I’m the one who all that anger is focused upon,” Mr. Phillips told CNN.

Mr. Phillips inserted himself between the two groups, singing the American Indian Movement Song, a protest song but one also intended to create unity.

The song is really an invitation. It has no words. Anyone can join in, if you listen.

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As Mr. Phillips walked into the crowd, the two groups separated.

He took another step.

The crowd backed up again. It was working.

Some students stopped yelling and watched what was happening.

Then, a Covington Grade 11 student named Nick Sandmann, wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat, confronted Mr. Phillips, standing in his way. As Mr. Phillips sang, Mr. Sandmann smirked, refusing to move while being encouraged by his friends.

Mr. Phillips said the confrontation felt like “hate unbridled. It was like a storm.”

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Witnesses stated and videos showed how the group surrounded and harassed Mr. Phillips, performing the “Tomahawk Chop” while chanting slogans like “Build the Wall” and “Trump 2020."

Mr. Sandmann states that he was trying to be “respectful.” In a statement he said: “I am mortified that so many people have come to believe something that did not happen – that students from my school were chanting or acting in a racist fashion toward African-Americans or native Americans. I did not do that, do not have hateful feelings in my heart, and did not witness any of my classmates doing that."

The video of Mr. Phillips and Mr. Sandmann went viral. Some called it a “face-off.”

I call it America.

North America.

North America, a place in which Indigenous peoples, time and time again, refuse to stop being who we are but are mocked, belittled and demeaned for it.

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North America, a place in which groups of people arrive from far-off places, bringing their conflicts and fights, while we remind them that there are people and laws here too.

North America, a place in which an American boy can mock the very person who enabled him to wear the hat he wears so proudly.

This is the scene history brings us to. Clearly.

The most remarkable thing about this video is how unremarkable it is.

Or, how shocked people are by the blatant racism, hatred and disrespect it shows.

Indigenous life is a dangerous situation. Period.

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Yet, Indigenous peoples endure. We sing. We stand our ground.

We refuse to give up on the people we live with, even while they mock us on Sunday afternoons at football games.

We insert ourselves into storms to do what is right, even as we are arrested for protecting the water and land for those arresting us.

We even humbly offer songs and prayers and invitations to the most ignorant, to those who lie and steal and “make America great again.”

After a chaperone came and led the teens away, Mr. Phillips finished his song and later was asked what he wished he could say to the boys in an interview.

“I will pray for them,” Mr. Phillips said. “That’s what the whole part was, a prayer. The use of the drum, the song, that was a prayer. What I said to them at the end was, ‘Relatives!’ and I got their attention and I said, ‘Make America great.’ They said, ‘How?’”

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Mr. Phillips couldn’t tell them as they left to pose for a photo.

Meanwhile, representatives of Covington Catholic High School offered an apology for Mr. Sandmann’s and his classmates’ actions.

Maybe they could just be good parents, teachers and chaperones instead.

Like Mr. Phillips. An uncle who will always be there for them.

Maybe we could be good aunties and uncles too.

For this is North America, laid bare.

Now that we’ve seen it, it’s our moment now.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described Nathan Phillips as a Vietnam veteran. While he served in the armed forces, he was not deployed to Vietnam.

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