Editor’s Note: Simon Moya-Smith is an Oglala Lakota and Chicano journalist. He is the author of the forthcoming book, “Your Spirit Animal is a Jackass.” The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Let’s be absolutely clear about something here: Whatever else may have been said about it or our country’s reactions to it, the racist disrespect of Nathan Phillips, a Native American elder, by Nick Sandmann and his MAGA-hat clad classmates of Covington Catholic High School at the Lincoln Memorial is nothing new. In fact, it’s quite the common thing. In this increasingly depraved society, that kind of behavior is often encouraged or excused as just good ol’ American fun.
Think about it: If you’d like to see more of the same rancid mockery – tomahawk-chopping, chanting, war-whooping, cultural appropriation, dummy drumming – all you have to do is attend a Cleveland Indians game or an Atlanta Braves game or a Kansas City Chiefs game or a Chicago Blackhawks game or, of course, a Washington NFL team game.
Seriously, were it not for the mass of MAGA hats, D.C. onlookers to Friday’s incident could reasonably have assumed they happened upon some spontaneous Washington NFL team pep rally, whipped out a grill, fired up burgers and brats and joined in the nastiness.
Indeed, the very form of anti-native ridicule and disrespect of personhood and culture caught on multiple videos that day predates Donald J. Trump and his base by centuries.
Understand that here in the United States, racism against and disrespect of natives is embedded in the American psyche early in life, and it begins with things like holidays to Indian killers, Hollywood Westerns of Indians being killed, and fanatic sports culture where on any given Sunday in autumn a headline in Dallas reads, “Cowboys Scalp Redskins.”
America mocks and dehumanizes natives at every turn; we are either outright erased, shut out of the conversation, or made into evil “savages” out to terrorize white society – that’s until November rolls around. Then parents and teachers dress up the kiddos in faux native garb; they paint their faces in “war paint,” and don them with synthetic feathers and paper headbands for some cheap Thanksgiving production.
Nothing new to see here, folks. Just business as usual in America, which is why when Sandmann was filmed smirking at Phillips as his raucous peers whooped and jeered in the background I wasn’t surprised at all. I was disgusted and enraged as usual, but surprised? Not in the least. These are learned behaviors, and nothing about the controversy about how Americans, especially those in the media, responded to the incident changes that one bit.
It also didn’t shock me when the all-boys Catholic school crew went so far as to shout “build the wall” at a Native American, according to Phillips’ account of the event. It just goes to show you that MAGA isn’t merely about immigration, it’s about skin pigmentation.
And the irony isn’t lost on me that white kids – descendants of Europe, presumably – would shout “build the wall” at a man whose ancestry on this soil is tens of thousands of years old.
Still, it’s quickly becoming clear that the MAGA hat threatens to become the white, pointy hood of our generation, and the beastly bellow “build the wall!” is slowly beginning to replace “white power!” as the preferred phrase of the bigoted and hateful, and they’re obviously passing on the putrid ideologies to their children and paying PR firms to spin situations caught on camera.
On Wednesday, the “Today” show aired an interview between Savannah Guthrie and Sandmann in which the student at the center of the conflict said his “position” is that he “wasn’t disrespectful” to Phillips, a revered veteran and citizen of the Omaha Nation. He further stated that he doesn’t feel an apology is warranted.
Of course he doesn’t feel an apology is warranted. Trump, Sandmann’s fan who came to his defense in a tweet, won’t ever apologize to natives for weaponizing the name of Pocahontas when he goes after Elizabeth Warren’s neck, so we can hardly expect a member of his base in training to apologize for their vile and vulgar behavior.
This interview is all part of damage control on the part of Sandmann, his PR team and the Catholic Church itself. They’re working diligently to paint Phillips as the aggressor when all the elder says he was doing was trying to defuse a situation between the MAGA kids and the Black Israelites who were yelling obscenities at them, which are two entirely different subjects altogether.
Still, during the interview with Guthrie and Sandmann I couldn’t help but wonder: Where’s your hat, kid? Why not wear it now? At the Lincoln Memorial he allegedly was holding his ground, but clearly he wasn’t willing to go so far as to wear his MAGA hat on a national morning show.
By abandoning the hat, he was clearly trying to play the “sweet kid” card, but footage does not lie. He will be remembered as the white boy with the Brett Kavanaugh-like smirk who will never be able to tomahawk chop at an Atlanta Braves game without being filmed.
And that is the only difference here: Sandmann intentionally mocked a native elder for the entertainment of his friends, got caught, and still won’t apologize. But what he did happens far more often than most people in the United States are willing to admit, like on opening day in Cleveland when Indians fans in redface and chicken-feather headdresses lambaste natives and allies with war whoops and comments like “go back to the reservation” as they protest the mascot Chief Wahoo and the name of the ball club.
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Had Sandmann and the other kids mistreated Phillips sans the MAGA hats at the Lincoln Memorial, most folks would have never known the incident took place. It would’ve lived on #NativeTwitter, where we fight against this kind of hate and mockery and racism every day.
Baseball’s Opening Day is just a few months away now. So stay put. This will happen again – in different kinds of hats but with the same kind of bigotry and hate that Phillips experienced in D.C. Mark my words, because to treat natives this way is as American as baseball itself.