Tuesday, January 22, 2019

"First" Encounters

Dear journalists phoning and emailing for comments: Please consider this my official statement on Nathan Phillips and the Covington Catholic High School male students.

I’m sorry, I teach all day and don’t have time for a live interview.

I can say, however, that after careful viewing of all the videos currently online that show the encounter between Phillips, the Black Israelites, and the mostly-white Catholic high school students there for a "Pro-Life March" (if you need my thoughts on that, please read Ursula K. Le Guin's brilliant essay), this is what I’m thinking: the only adult human in those videos is Nathan Phillips.

A friend once told me, when a situation is chaotic, and language is confusing, look at the basics: actions. Who is doing what? 

Looking at those videos, I see four Black Israelites insulting both what appears to be about 30 Catholic students and the small group of 3-5 Indigenous people/allies. Then I see the Catholic students crowding around an elderly Indian man in street clothes and glasses, who is beating a hand drum and vocalizing song or his own language (both, probably). I see the Catholic students jumping up and down, some doing the Tomahawk-Chop from a pro football team, one boy stripping off his shirt and doing some kind of dance (later I heard these are school spirit chants), others “singing along” without knowing what they were singing, while doing the Tomahawk-chop, clapping to the beat of the drum, asking each other “what is going on?” and making a lot of loud noises that are obnoxious, rather than afraid (shouts, screams, chants). At one point, I see two blond women also dancing and chopping with the students – since this is a boy’s group, and the women are older, it seems likely that they are parent chaperones or teachers. Another video shows a glimpse of a man with a priest’s collar in the back, observing. I see that the young man in the MAGA hat who engages Phillips with his gaze has plenty of room to move back or sideways. I see that Phillips could turn and walk away. I see that he has a handful of supporters – maybe four.

What I don’t see? I don’t see any frightened children. I don’t see any children crying, running away, shielding themselves from threats, or acting fearful for their well-being. Instead, they appear to be crowding closer to Phillips – curious yet clueless. I see the beginning of a mob. What I see is a juvenile version of a Donald Trump rally in which protestors or even allies of a different color are heckled or kicked out of the auditorium.

This is how it always starts. This is why Native Americans are concerned about being told, "You started it."

Here is what I also see: that the children in these videos have absolutely no true representations of Native Americans in their heads to prepare them in any way for this moment. They possess no point of reference for what an Indian person is, other than howling stereotypes from Westerns, Indian sports mascots, bloody video games, and outdated novels or textbooks. They probably have never met an Indigenous person, let along spoken to one, or heard Indigenous music or prayers sung.  Perhaps to these students, “Indian” means mascot, casino, vanishing, savage. Their “responses” strike me as that of very young, confused children -- but minus any respect a child typically gives adults.

Strangely, I am reminded of the ways Europeans responded to Indigenous peoples at first contact – unable to image the Other as a human being with language, religion, feelings, intentions, or dignity.  And so, like early Catholics in the “New World,” the school children impose their own standards on Phillips, and in their wild gesticulations, find the Indian man to be laughable, suitable for mocking. This is certainly the framework with which Spanish Catholic explorers, priests and soldiers responded to meeting my ancestors, the Esselen and Chumash peoples who were missionized in Southern California from 1769-1835. The Spaniards were absolutely certain that their worldview and belief systems were the only way with which to live in the world, and left no room left for negotiation or conversation. What followed was a brutal attempt to literally beat “bad” Indians into good Catholic laborers and servants, and a drop in Indigenous population in what we currently call California – from over one million people at first contact in 1769 to less than 20,000 people by 1900.

In short, I see a group of children who have been failed by their educators, their parents, and their role models. Because unlike the original “First Encounters” in North America, these children – in 2019 – don’t have the (questionable) excuse of ignorance. Evidently, their parents and teachers were never educated in the history of Indigenous peoples, on whose land they stood, either. Evidently, they too never learned the etiquette of engaging with someone whose looks, language, religion, or worldview are different than theirs – let alone consider that these differences may actually be just as valuable as their own. I say “evidently,” because the evidence in these videos – all of them – should cause the parents and educators of these children to wince in shame. Instead, I see the young man who locked gazes with Phillips release a statement saying, “perhaps a group of adults was trying to provoke a group of teenagers into a larger conflict." 

That student is a young male, white, a member of the dominant culture in this country (and a culture that has long been dominant, a culture which has historically enslaved some, appropriated the land of others, and required laws passed in order to extend human rights) and goes to a private school with a steep tuition. Phillips is male, Indian in a country where the dominant culture has historically mistreated Indians – please look up Indian Boarding Schools – elderly, and physically frail.

If that student felt threatened, we all need to ask ourselves why that delusion seems to be stuck in his head – and in the heads of the so-called adults raising him. Because it is a delusion. It is inexcusably ignorant. And I will give the young man’s school and parents that much credit – he is far too smart not to know that.


Deborah A. Miranda



  1. I second that BRAVO! This is exactly correct!

  2. That young man's mother commented on Twitter that it was "too bad the colonists hadn't brought more smallpox infected blanket with them". It would seem, the history is there mixed in with the hatred they feel for those that their taxes are paying for. At least they assume are on welfare and aid.

  3. Thank you very much for posting this. I've shared it on our 2ndaryELA Facebook group, in the hopes of sharing another perspective on this weekend's events.

  4. This was beautifully thought and written and I have shared it extensively. Thank you for posting it.

  5. I have long lamented the great crevase between the truth of the way that the colonial settlers of the land treated the people occupying the land and the history that was written of the same events. It seems that the settlers always had a hostile relationship with the people that made way for them. If the people who called this land home had simply allowed the settlers to survive as best they could this would still be a land as it was when Captain Smith explored the Chesapeake Bay. Because the settlers were ill prepared to prosper in the wilderness of this land.

  6. When my husband saw the first video he immediately saw that it was prayer, "You could feel the presence and the power of the ancestors next to him." Thank you.


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