Inaugural Indigenous Peoples March Sparks Worldwide Media Attention

Media outlets around the world are picking up the story about the Indigenous Peoples March on Friday, January 18, but not for reasons you might expect. The actual event went peacefully, beginning at the steps of the Department of the Interior and ending on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Attendees came from as far as South America and Asia to express unity with other indigenous nations. But the biggest news to come out of this event is the story about the encounter between Nathan Phillips, an Omaha Nation elder and war veteran, and youth from the Covington Catholic High School, visiting from Kentucky.

Indigenous Peoples March attendees stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the event rally.

Indigenous Peoples March attendees stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the event rally.

Although there are several stories swirling about this encounter, it went a little something like this - students from Covington High were touring the Lincoln Memorial after their demonstration for the March for Life, pro-life rally, where they protested abortion laws at the steps of the Supreme Court of the United States. This event ran concurrent with the Indigenous Peoples March, which ended at the Lincoln Memorial, and was wrapping up by the time the students arrived in the area. Elders and drummers were closing the event with final songs when the controversy began.

In an interview with CNN, Omaha Nation elder Nathan Phillips states that he saw the youth being heckled and began making his way over to the area. He holds firm that he was hoping to diffuse the issue between the youth and the hecklers, instead, he was met an unexpected turn of events. In video footage from the event, we see the youth began shouting chants such as, “build that wall,” and other remarks, all while Mr. Phillips continued to play his songs on the hand drum. One student decides to stand face-to-face with Mr. Phillips while the chanting occurs, in what seems like an attempt to mock his actions. Covington student, Nick Sandmann, stands just inches away from Mr. Phillips and even cracks a smile while his peers continue shouting and encouraging him from the crowd.

On Sunday, January 20, the student released his own statement regarding the event, insisting that the media storm got it all wrong, stating that instead, “adults were attempting to provoke teenagers.” Mr. Sandmann insists that he was singled out by the Omaha elder and he never intended on creating a confrontation - instead, he says that it was just the opposite, insisting that he is, “a faithful Christian and practicing Catholic,” and was in no way attempting to promote or participate in violence.

While additional camera angles show perspectives that were not initially distributed by media outlets, many have taken to social media to express their disgust with the situation, sparking deeper discussion around the respect and visibility of Native Americans in the U.S.