The recent controversy regarding videotaped encounters between Native Americans, Catholic high school boys and Hebrew Black Israelites on Jan. 20 at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., offers some teaching moments. While many questions remain about what happened, at least this is known:
While waiting for a bus to return home after participating in an anti-abortion March for Life rally, a group of boys and their chaperones from Covington Catholic High School, Kentucky, gathered at the Lincoln Memorial. A small group of Black Hebrew Israelites, a religious sect that believes they are descendants of the Biblical Israelites, encountered the boys.
Meanwhile, Nathan Phillips, a 64-year-old member of the Omaha Nation and a U.S. Marine veteran, came upon the scene while participating with other Native Americans in the Indigineous Peoples March. Phillips said he wanted to defuse the situation. Beating his drum and singing the American Indian Movement song, he walked between the Covington boys and the Black Hebrew Israelites.
One Covington boy, who later identified himself as Nick Sandmann in a statement, stood in front of Phillips. Sandmann said Phillips came up to him. Phillips said Sandmann didn’t move. One video showed Phillips singing and drumming while Sandmann smiled. That video got released on social media, followed by others, and as happens, things blew up.
Everyone involved can learn something from the event, including these groups:
• Social media: Users of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media don’t have a reputation for always verifying facts or checking out stories. It’s a good reminder for all of us to reserve judgment there.
• The media: We’re trained to verify facts, but the media also goes to press with limited knowledge. It’s worth being cautious and reserved in our reporting, and to follow up on stories as new information emerges.
• Political groups: A lot of people were quick to condemn the boys because some of them wore “Make America Great Hats,” a sartorial sign of support for President Donald Trump. People used the incident to show how conservatives are racist punks or how liberals are quick to condemn innocent teenagers exercising their right to free speech. Maybe the political rhetoric can be dialed back a notch?
• Teachers: This is a good opportunity for teachers of teenagers to talk about respect, cultural awareness, public decorum and social media use. We hope Covington Catholic High School is having those conversations. Up to a certain point, adolescents with brains growing in advance of behaviorial control get a pass if they do stupid things. That’s why we have a discrete juvenile justice system. It’s our job as adults to guide our children beyond adolescence. We can do that by, ahem, setting good examples.
At the center of this is a person who by his age and experience commands respect — Nathan Phillips. People who know anything at all about Native American culture, understand that Natives who have lived to grow gray and wrinkled are or should be revered. In any Native culture, from the Seminoles of Florida to the Inupiaq of the North Slope, elders are honored.
That’s the most important lesson of all. When youth encounter an elder, they should show kindness. They should offer to help. They should not interrupt and they should listen. They should seek knowledge and ask polite questions.
And when that elder comes up to you singing and beating his drum, you should bow your head, acknowledge his presence, step aside and let him pass.