It’s been nearly a month since Omaha Nation Elder Nathan Phillips and Nicholas Sandmann, a white student from Covington Catholic High School, appeared to face off on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. Phillips was there for the Indigenous People’s March and Sandmann for the March for Life. A bystander captured the moment when Sandmann appeared to be smirking at Phillips, and then posted it on Twitter. The image quickly provoked a fire hose of outrage. Soon, videos shot from multiple angles surfaced, revealing that Sandmann and his male classmates had been previously taunted by another group—the Black Hebrew Israelites. The videos also showed Covington students engaged in chants and tomahawk chops to the sound of Phillips playing the hand drum. And, suddenly, the narrative became more complicated. For many, the additional videos were evidence that the teen and his classmates were victims, not perpetrators of racism. The calls to move past the debate were swift. But many Native people have said, “Not so fast.” For Rebecca Nagle, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, there were many lessons for educators. Education Week Editorial Intern Sasha Jones caught up with her recently to discuss them.
Many have argued that it’s time to move on from the encounter between the group of Covington Catholic High School students and members of the Indigenous People’s March. Why is anyone still talking about it, and why should educators still be thinking about it?
NAGLE: I think there’s a lot to take from it in terms of what educators and what our education system, in general, can do better. I think that the behavior of the Covington Catholic High School students, while unfortunate, is not rare and is reflective of larger problems within media and pop culture, but also K-12 curriculums, and what people are learning about Native Americans and what people aren’t.
What’s your response to the critics who say that it’s because some white students don’t often encounter students of color that they don’t know how to behave? Do you think that’s fair?
I can’t count how many times somebody has told me, “Oh, wow, you’re the first Native person I’ve ever met.” And you know what I say to that? That’s probably not true. It’s just the first time that you’re aware of it, because you’re meeting Native people all the time, we’re just invisible. So, you’re not coming to the conclusion that the person that you’re meeting is Native American. There are over five million Native people in the United States. The vast majority of us actually don’t live on reservations. We’re in urban areas. We’re in suburban areas. I think it’s helpful for students to be exposed to people who are not like them to build tolerance and to also learn. But you shouldn’t have to have those experiences to treat people who are different from you with respect, in my opinion.
What do you think the responsibility of schools is to teach tolerance?
I think there’s a huge responsibility for educators to teach tolerance. I think the idea of K-12 education is that we’re preparing young people to be good citizens. I think that tolerance is completely necessary for that. Beyond what we’re teaching students about individual behavior and how they should act, I think it’s important that we teach them about systems. What happened in the interaction between the high school students and Nathan Phillips is systemic because that’s how Native people are treated all the time. The dehumanization that those boys learn comes from systems. We need to teach them about how they work, what their impact is, and what can be done to change them.
Like you said, these incidents are not necessarily rare. What would you say to those who, in your words, are privileged enough to not have experienced them?
Listen to Native people. Native people experience this type of racism daily, and we know what it is. In this moment of reflection, I think for that learning to occur, Native voices really need to be centered, and to be heard, and to be believed, too. When people say, “I know what that look is because I’ve been on the receiving end of it"—it’s not just Native people, but also people of color and a lot of women—people need to listen to that experience, their lived experiences.
Bullying and racism play out in the classroom all the time. How can educators prevent this kind of situation from taking place?
We need to teach students how to intervene. That’s not [about] teaching people how to be a white savior. But we need to teach, especially white kids, when they see somebody who is white—it might be a peer, it might be somebody in their family—say or do something that’s racist, how to challenge that behavior and how to have hard conversations. It can be a scary moment to call somebody out in that way, so I think teaching people real skills around having those difficult conversations is something that I think most of our schools leave out of curriculum. Part of being a good citizen of a diverse country, a diverse city, or a diverse community is being able to have those skills, instead of just ignoring it or walking away, to stand up against that wrong.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.