Why the Video of Those Catholic Boys Felt So Shameful

In some traditions, respecting your elders is the greatest teaching we receive.
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Students from Covington Catholic High School confront Native elder Nathan Phillips by the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on January 19th, 2019.

Students from Covington Catholic High School confront Native elder Nathan Phillips by the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on January 19th, 2019.

I watched the videos of a Native elder drumming in front of a white teenage boy wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat this weekend. The boy's smile and the man's song, which is a prayer, seem incongruous next to one another. If the elder had been singing in front of the kids on my homeland, on my rez, the kids would have known to hold their hands up and give thanks, or to use their hands to drum. Some kids might have been uncomfortable with the elder's earnestness, or with traditional songs themselves. Some kids might have made a joke, and, with a look, maybe a youth worker would have chided them. Within some nations, respecting your elders is the greatest teaching we receive.

When I was a little girl, an elder drew me an illustration. It was a circle, and at the top was a womb, then, from right to left, she drew stick figures to illustrate how a baby becomes a toddler, who becomes a young woman, and by the time we arrive at the top of the circle, the young woman is an elder, holding her granddaughter's hand as she passes into the next world. This is why, she said, we serve elders, then children, then ourselves. Children are our teachers; elders are our teachers. We must look out for and listen to both. They are interconnected in their needs and knowledge. I wouldn't call her illustration a representation of how all people on Seabird Island view children or elders, but it felt common enough that whenever there were community dinners, people served the elders first.

When I saw the young man in the MAGA hat, seemingly staring down an elder, I cried. I didn't want to feel so sentimental, or so outraged, because I'm tired of seeing hatred and reacting to it. But this was different. This young man's face and actions were in direct opposition with how I was taught to behave around elders—any elders, white or Indian.

In my community, we are not taught to see elders as infallible or perfect beings who don't make mistakes; we're taught to honor them as our mother or grandmother would want us to. How we behave toward them shows who our family is, and what we hold in high esteem. That's why, when news reports sifted through different reports of the incident to adjudicate who had approached whom, or who was chanting what, it didn't matter to me. The young man behaved inappropriately toward an elder, and it told me about his family's values and behavior toward their own elders.

As a teenager, as part of my training as a woman, my friends and I worked at an Elder's Conference for Sto:ló Nation. The conference was about healing, restoration, and fun. My friends and I had the duty of serving the elders. Because we knew which ones were ornery and didn't like our families, we knew how to avoid confrontation, and we knew how to show them our best behavior, no matter how they felt toward us. At one meal, I took a paper plate from an elder who wasn't done with her food yet, and she yelled at me. My mother was watching. I apologized and brought the elder a new plate, with half a scoop of each course, and a cupcake as well. I asked her if she wanted coffee, and she nodded, approving of how I'd rectified the situation—and, by proxy, approving of my family. My friends and I worked until we were sweaty, and then our parents took us home. In the car, my mother said I was a going to be a good woman.

Some observers have criticized Nathan Phillips, the Omaha elder, who used to work with Native young people as the former director of the Native Youth Alliance. I've watched the videos, and I know what I saw. When Phillips approached the young man, singing that song, he was offering a healing gift; it was the youth's responsibility to be respectful and protective in the presence of an elder. What this boy did is a testament to his family and their values, and says more about him than his MAGA hat ever could. The young man's non-apology did not mention how his behavior toward an elder had shamed his family.

That says a lot about the culture among kids who wear the MAGA hat. My son, who wears a "Make America Native Again" hat, would never have stood before an elder with such impudence because he would have known what shame it would bring on his family—and on generations of people who have taken care of each other with pride and respect.

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