I do not want to romanticize the past. The numerous tribal wars which occurred for thousands of years before European settlers arrived in the “New World” have been well documented. Yet despite these conflicts, the overall legacy of our nation’s indigenous people reveals a remarkable story of human migration, survival, and the spread of civilizations. In fact, the very roots of American democracy began not with Washington, Jefferson and Madison, but with the Six Nation Iroquois Confederacy. In the parlance of his age, Benjamin Franklin said in 1751:
It would be a strange thing if Six Nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming a scheme for such an union, and be able to execute it in such a manner as that it has subsisted ages and appears indissoluble; and yet that a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies.
This is what those MAGA (“Make America Great Again”) hat wearing high school students from Kentucky failed to grasp when they clashed with a group of Native American demonstrators at our nation’s capital. If only they knew that the very steps they were standing on were erected to honor a political philosophy that came from the ancestors of the Native American marchers.
Furthermore, no matter where European immigrants arrived from, once here they were confronted by environments that were both foreign and hostile. It was native wisdom that enabled the immigrants to successfully hunt, fish, plant food, and endure the elements. For all of their antics and palpable smugness, I wonder if the students would have behaved in such a manner if they understood the real indebtedness they all have to the ancestors of those who they were mocking.
If only the students knew that Native Americans have served militarily in this country in every conflict since the Revolutionary War, perhaps then they would have a little more respect. Although there are questions about the exact story behind the drummer Nathan Phillip’s military record, whether he served in Vietnam or not, the fact remains that many Indians did. They fought and died in the jungles of North Vietnam, just as they fought and died in the battlefields of Germany, and the killing farms of Gettysburg.
One thing is certain. It was not a good day for the country. Because Native Americans are so often denied the opportunity to be seen as anything more than sports mascots, casino owners, or cultural victims, the site of many proud Native Americans joined in solidarity was not a scene that those young students were prepared to confront. When that smirking student stood in the face of Mr. Phillips — creating an image that went viral — I do not think he was equipped with the proper education or self-awareness to process what was happening. Caught between nervousness, fear, resentment, and unconscious shame, he was trapped in an awkward yet predictable silence. In that prescient moment he became a symbol of the white man’s relationship to Native Americans since the two first came into contact more than 500 years ago.
NOTE: On 2/2/19, the Democrat and Chronicle published George’s Guest Essay on the topic from another perspective.