By JOSEPH MARTIN
ONE FEATHER STAFF
When I was a young school kid in Missouri, I remember the bullying, much of it based on what I was. Taunts of war whooping and “do a rain dance,” were commonplace. Then came a smirk of one who stood in my face and stated, “What are you going to do about it Tonto?” This went on while teachers watched and did nothing, and I knew if I threw a punch, I’d be the one to get in trouble. These were the same teachers who taught that Indians live in tee pees.
A viral YouTube video sparking outrage showed privileged private school kids taunting an elder native activist, Nathan Phillips, with one kid smirking in his face. It’s hard not to be angry with the kids. Being disrespectful to an elder isn’t something we should tolerate.
However, much of the media coverage didn’t tell the whole story. As for Phillips, the stories about his military service were misleading. The media’s response overall was almost apologetic to the boys, one of whose family had obviously used the services of a public relations agency. The ensuing coverage was calling on us to not rush to judgment, and it also was business as usual when it comes to their coverage of Native Americans.
Two marches happened that day, Jan. 18, the Indigenous Peoples March, which Phillips was attending. The boys who did the taunting were sent by their school, Covington Catholic High School of Park Hills, Ky., to attend the March for Life. While the boys were waiting at the Lincoln Memorial, the Indigenous Peoples March began to meet at that point. Also, at that location were religious (and I use that term loosely) speakers shouting racial slurs and insults at the boys (and the natives). That’s where the trouble started.
Since that all came out, questions over Phillips’ military service after being led to believe he served in Vietnam also were brought out. He was never deployed to Vietnam, but he did serve in the Marines from 1972-76. Much of what was put out to elevate his status to war hero was misleading, and it’s fuzzy just how much misleading Phillips did himself. The public can make its own determinations about Phillips’ credibility, and as for the group hurling insults at the boys and the natives, they don’t deserve to be heard.
I’ll concede that these are kids. They grow up. However, exactly how much these kids will grow is something I question. How about instead of hiring a PR firm and a libel attorney, teach these kids about consequences, remorse and respect, especially for elders? Whatever anyone else said to them makes no difference. Their behavior was unacceptable, and the chaperones who let it happen bear some responsibility. Make no mistake, those boys have been taught that their culture, race, and identity are superior to others. They need to be untaught, and that’s on their teachers and parents. Everyone involved, the schools, parents, chaperones and students need to be held accountable for their behavior that day, and attorneys and PR agents aren’t the way to do that.
The media was also irresponsible in not getting the whole story, and their walking things back was equally irresponsible. Their whole treatment of Native Americans in general is irresponsible. The coverage the Indigenous Peoples March got pales in comparison to that of the March for Life, and the whole issue of racism against Native Americans, which was clearly on display in all its ugliness, was mostly ignored by the media in the aftermath. This time, “What are you going to do about it Tonto?” was delivered with a smirk to all of Native America, and the mainstream media just turned its back. I can fill a book about its flawed coverage of other native issues. The media must do a better job of covering Native America. There was a plethora of issues it could’ve covered within the march itself.
All of us need to raise our children to be better than this, and that message has astoundingly been lost through all the arguments over social media behavior, Phillips’ reputation and how much the media was supposedly out to destroy the lives of these boys (Trust me; they’ll be fine.). They need to be taught the relationship tribes have with this country and its states. It’s in the Constitution. We all need to teach how the differences in backgrounds and cultures enhance our society. Most of all, children need to learn respect for the elders, all children and all elders. They went through a lot to get us here, and that deserves respect.
While it is important to temper our reactions to what we see and hear while remembering there’s always another side, we also need to call out and correct bad behavior when we see it, and there was nothing wrong with calling these boys out on their behavior.