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Nathan Phillips: Why does the Elder beat the drum?

Since the January 18 video from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC went viral on social media, we have all struggled to make sense of the images and their meaning – shaped by our own personal lens and amplified by our social silos.

On that day, three elements crossed paths: Nathan Phillips, a Vietnam Veteran and Elder of the Omaha Tribe, Covington Catholic High School students, and a group of Black Hebrew Israelites.

As we all attempted to digest what we watched in this encounter, our underlying subconscious was exposed. I was not exempt to the plethora of feelings which ranged from disgust to worry as I sat my two oldest children and asked them how they felt watching. Both visually displayed concern on their faces and verbally expressed the sadness they felt for the Native American gentleman. Both of them questioned, “why did he (the elderly tribesman) feel the need to do what he did?”

The answer to this question that my children asked was provided to me by a dear friend. A friend who has dedicated her entire career to helping young children engage in their own spiritual wisdom to find healing. As I read her words verbatim to my children, I became emotional and grateful for her guidance.

By Dale Weiss:

“If I view the video only with my eyes and ears – trying not to interject any interpretation – I see and hear an elder Native American man singing and drumming. I see and hear a group of white boys making noise. Many of them are wearing a hat with the letters MAGA on it. Their noise has intonations vaguely similar to the Native man’s singing. The boys are laughing. One boy is standing eye to eye with the elder, not moving. The elder continues to sing and drum. The boys continue to make noise and laugh. The one boy is silent. At one point another Native man is seen singing and drumming. At one point a white woman comments about the boys’ behavior. She is not pleased with what the boys are doing.

Yet, due to my own life experiences and my own understanding and perceptions, I see and hear so much more in this video. The boys are clearly mimicking and mocking the sounds of the Native man’s singing. I do not believe the boys understand a word the man is singing. The Native man seems intent on continuing his singing and drumming, I believe he has a message to convey. The boys represent the disrespect and oppression displayed by white people towards people of color.

The Native man represents the the people who first lived on U.S. soil, whose land has been systematically stolen and destroyed. The boys, by virtue of the hats many are wearing, by virtue of being white, by virtue of being male – represent white, male supremacy. The Native man represents people oppressed through this supremacy. The woman who spoke to some of the boys and indicated her displeasure, represents white people willing to intervene when they observe someone being oppressed. These are the interpretations. I read into this video. And my interpretations are what I believe.

I also became curious – I wanted to find out more. I found out the boys were in DC at a right-to-life rally. I found out the Native man was also a U.S. veteran and that he was singing the American Indian Movement song (A.I.M. song). I wondered about the song – and what exactly he was singing.

I discovered that this song was adopted in 1972 in Gordon, Nebraska – when the American Indian Movement went there to protest the murder of Raymond Yellowthunder. This song was originally dedicated to the Yellowthunder family, but because of the story behind the song, the Cheyenne people later gave the song to the American Indian Movement.

Then I wondered about who Raymond Yellowthunder was, so I researched more. He was an Indian cowboy from Pine Ridge. In 1970 he was beaten to death in a bar by two white men (brothers Melvin and Leslie Hare), and harassed by two other white men and one white woman. Previously that night the two brothers stripped him of his pants and pushed him into the bar to make fun of him. Then they took him outside and beat him to death. They put Raymond Yellowthunder in the back of their car, then put him into the cab of a pickup truck in a used car lot, where he died. Two little boys found his body a week later. He had died of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was 51 years old. Melvin and Leslie were initially charged with assault and battery and released without bail. But after A.I.M. protested, the charges were changed to second-degree manslaughter. One of the five people arrested was never charged; three were charged with manslaughter; one was charged with false imprisonment. It took two years for any of these charges to be made (May, 1972).. Melvin and Leslie were sentenced to one year in prison.

What followed were many AIM protests over the killing of Raymond Yellowthunder – which led directly to the Indian occupation of Wounded Knee (in South Dakota) in 1973. Murders of Native Americans had been taking place in South Dakota for a hundred years, the murder of Raymond Yellowthunder was nothing new. Before the Hare brothers were arrested and later convicted, no white person had ever been arrested, tried, or convicted for killing a Native American. At the time, signs on stores routinely said “No Dogs or Indians Allowed.” Racism was rampant.

“The A.I.M. Song” is as follows:

Maamwi g’da maashkozimi
Together we should be strong
Niizhwaasing shkode gii boodawewaad
The seventh fire has been lit by them
Boochigo Anishinaabemyaang
We have to all speak Anishinaabemowin
Mino bimaadziyaang
We are living well
Mino bimaadziyaang
We are living well

Now, through the eyes of the aforementioned information, view the video again. Do you see or understand anything new? Occurrences in life are rarely only “just because” of something happening in one very specific moment. Occurrences in life are filled with history – be it our own history filled with our own life experiences, or the history and life experiences of a group of people. There is much that can be learned from this video.”

It has become clear that we must continue to beat the drum and allow it to pierce the hearts and minds of American psyche. Nathan Phillips was an American hero long before this weekend, as a former Marine he served this country in the Vietnam war. He co-founded the Native American Youth Alliance and works to inspire youth leadership and community change. He has stood as a water protector, and keeper of the sacred pipe.

Phillips has been a lifelong peacemaker and he continues to represent the best of what we can be when we desire healing. The question is not if a person like “Uncle Nate” can step up but instead; can we as a society step up?

Dale Weiss, Ed.D., is an author of numerous educational articles published in both anthologies and magazines. She recently retired after 30 years teaching in public education. Most central to Dale’s teaching is helping students gain the critical thinking skills to recognize injustice, the belief they can make our world a better place, and the action steps to do just that.

About The Author

Pardeep Kaleka

As a former Milwaukee Police Officer and co-founder of Serve2Unite.org, Pardeep is author of "The Gifts of Our Wounds," and a Licensed Therapist specializing in utilizing a trauma-informed approach to treat survivors of violence. He is also the Editor and a featured Columnist for Milwaukee Independent.

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