We have a long history of disrespecting Native Americans and denying their humanity


The viral video of a group of teenage boys appearing to taunt Nathan Phillips, a Native American veteran, as he played a drum during the Indigenous Peoples March is another reminder of the racism and intolerance that plague the country.

Some observers and some news accounts now insist that the video was edited, that a longer version shows a different version of the episode. Yet, if the original version of events proves to be true, it will be a chilling continuation of the long history of disrespecting Indians and denying them their basic rights. 

{mosads}Since many of the boys shown in the video wore “Make American Great Again” caps, it is not surprising that President Trump is receiving much of the blame for their apparent behavior. 

Earlier this month Reps. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) and Sharice Davids (D-Kan.) became the first Native American women to serve in Congress. Haaland, in the wake of this incident, noted that President Trump “really brought out the worst in people.” He has certainly helped make America hate again. But it would be a mistake to think of this alleged taunting as an isolated incident. 

In 1974, after the bodies of three Navajo men were found beaten, tortured and burned near Farmington, N.M., three Farmington High School students — one 15-year-old, two 16-year-olds — were convicted of the murders

In some reservation border towns, the discrimination Indians face is often obvious. But it is not surprising that people, especially teenage boys, might feel empowered to discriminate against and taunt Native Americans in a city that continues to tolerate the Washington Redskins, a team name that disrespects Native Americans.

Religion also plays a role. In Johnson v. M’Intosh, an 1823 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court limited the land rights of Indian nations, Chief Justice John Marshall officially accepted the Doctrine of Discovery as the basis of U.S. territorial acquisition. When it came to land in the new world, Europeans, under that doctrine, could assert “a right to take possession, notwithstanding the occupancy of the natives, who were heathens.” 

Marshall said that “the character and religion of its inhabitants afforded an apology for considering them as a people over whom the superior genius of Europe might claim an ascendency.” Although it has been nearly 200 years since Marshall used the “character and religion” of Indians as an excuse for their subjugation, the law continues to treat Indian rights, especially land rights, dismissively. 

The idea that the government must provide just compensation for land it takes from property owners is a protected right under the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution. Yet, in 1955, the Supreme Court, relying on Johnson v. M’Intoshheld that Alaska Natives did not have such protection when their land was taken. 

And it is not just the law that continues to deny the equal rights and humanity of Indians. After this most recent incident, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Covington, Ky., and Covington Catholic High School issued a joint statement condemning the students’ alleged actions and apologized to Nathan Phillips, arguing that such “behavior is opposed to the Church’s teachings on the dignity and respect of the human person.” 

People close to me have argued that love is the central message of Catholicism and of Christianity, so I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the joint statement. Yet, throughout history, such love has too often not been extended to Indians. In support of the Doctrine of Discovery, conquistadors would read a list of demands to Indians called “The Requirement.” 

Under its terms, often read aloud in Latin, Indians were told they had to “acknowledge the Church as the Ruler and Superior of the whole world,” and that if they failed to do so, the Spanish “shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their Highnesses; we shall take you and your wives and your children and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as their Highnesses may command.” 

Time has passed, of course and the Church has matured. In 2015, Pope Francis issued an apology to the indigenous peoples of the Americas, acknowledging that “many grave sins were committed against the native peoples of America in the name of God.” 

Sadly, though, this apology came in the same year that Pope Francis decided to elevate Junípero Serra, a priest who helped subjugate Indians in California, to sainthood. (There are arguments that Serra was not a bad colonizer, but it is unclear why such claims are enough to support canonization in 2015.) Even today the relationship between Catholicism and indigenous peoples is complicated, to put it mildly.

What is less complicated is how we should react to this latest apparent example: It should be condemned. It is great that the Diocese of Covington and Covington Catholic High School recognized that fact as quickly as they did. 

Hopefully, schools and parents across the country will take this opportunity to do a better job of educating their students on Native American history, Indian rights and on more nebulous concepts such as love and respect. And, collectively, it is worth celebrating the character of Native Americans like Nathan Phillips whose strength is too often tested by the country’s non-native population. 

Ezra Rosser is a law professor at American University Washington College of Law. You can follow him on Twitter @EzraRosser.

Tags Deb Haaland Donald Trump Nathan Phillips Native American Sharice Davids

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