Commentary: I am aware of the numerous wars and inter-tribal disputes which occurred for thousands of years before European settlers arrived in what is now the continental United States. I am also aware of the many Native American practices that make modern readers squirm with moral disgust-acts such as human kidnapping, rape, routine raids/massacres, and even human sacrifice. Yet despite these unsavory aspects, the complete picture of Native Americans tells a remarkable story of migration, survival, family loyalty, the spread of ideas, and the laying of a political foundation that influenced the creation of the United States. This is what those MAGA hat (“Make America Great Again”) wearing students failed to grasp. They failed to grasp that what we call “America” today, was great when the Indian tribes, confederacies and empires spread from shore to shore.
If only those students were taught about the roots of American democracy, which did not begin with Jefferson and Madison, but with the Six Nation Iroquois confederacy. Would they have been so openly dismissive of the Indian marchers if they knew that the very steps they were standing on were erected to honor a political philosophy that came not from Europe but here in the “New World?” In the parlance of his age, Benjamin Franklin once 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.” University of Buffalo American Studies Professor Donald Grinde, among others, argue that American colonists, “drew freely on the image of the American Indian as an exemplar of the spirit of liberty they so cherished.”
Furthermore, no matter where European immigrants arrived from, once here they were introduced to environments that were foreign and hostile. They needed to know how to survive off the land. That knowledge came directly from the first Americans. For all of their palpable smugness, I wonder if the students would have behaved in such a manner if they knew the real indebtedness they all have to the ancestors of those who they were mocking.
It was a sad but predictable spectacle. Because Native Americans are so often denied the opportunity to be seen as anything more than mascots 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 the drummer Nathan Phillips-creating an image that went viral- I do not think he knew how to process what was truly happening. Caught somewhere between nervousness, fear, and resentment, he was trapped in an awkward 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.