The Smile Is What Stays With You

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The scene is almost too perfect.

You have seen the video by now. The weathered face of Nathan Phillips, a Native man, Vietnam War veteran and sovereign nation citizen, his voice rising amid a drum beat, is drowned out occasionally by a lurching mob of white teens engulfing him, and in the center of it, there is that boy in the MAGA hat.

The scene is perfect because it’s familiar. You know that boy. The steady pale face, the curved lips, the confidence dripping from the eyes. It’s real. The smile is the mark. The rest of it—the tomahawk chops, the wall chants, the laughter—is fuzzy, confined to the boundaries of your vision. You see the smile and you know everything.


The easy steps come next. The hate, the rage, the calls to the school—in this case, Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky—the tweets professing support of the brave vet, the shit-eating who among us takes, the expression of disbelief that anyone could raise a kid this way. That’s familiar, too. So are the wave of screams to seek justice, to figure out who stood there and who allowed it and why it happened. Voices that ring out and wonder where such confidence and gall originated, cries for understanding how anyone could be this despicable. Many pointed out the similarities between these white children, suffused with joyous hatred, and ones from other low moments in U.S. history. They are not wrong, but that’s familiar as well.

Meanwhile, Native people sigh. We shake our heads and ball our fists. We sing the AIM Song. We hum it. We close our eyes and exit out of the video before it’s done playing. We know it all.


The lead-up to this moment doesn’t trace back to a single thing, but rather to an ongoing trend embedded in the U.S. from its birth: the education most Americans receive about the relationship between the state and federal governments and this land’s Native and Indigenous peoples is lacking, to say the least.

To borrow a tired phrase, what unfolded on Friday was a feature of the American system, not a bug. Native American Journalist Association president Tristan Ahtone summed it up well in a recent interview with Canada’s National Observer:

“In terms of education on Indigenous peoples and history in the U.S., it’s designed to erase us,” he said. “I think back to my high school and I sometimes wonder if I shouldn’t just file a lawsuit against the place, for some of the stuff they were teaching. Not only was it offensive, but it was wrong, incredibly wrong. It should be criminally negligent to teach kids some of this stuff.”

Speaking from experience, the education about our histories offered by those outside of our communities leaves American teens departing school with the belief that they all know the bare-bone basics in some fashion. Some deals went south, and some slaughtering was done. The undeniable ugliness of nation-building. But that was then. They have moved on, and so should we. But they don’t know anything, really, and they have the luxury of moving on.

Native people can’t move on. Moving on has amounted to even more erasure for us. We faded, our legends and our continued presence scratched over by white people in Hollywood and more white people in academia. Our stories of segregation and grassroots resistance and continually broken federal contracts have still not reached the ears of modern Americans, especially not children. Canada, for all the evils it inflicted and continues to inflict upon its Indigenous peoples, including those inflicted by the Catholic schools like the one the Kentucky teens hail from, has at least begun to reckon with its legacy of genocide and erasure. We aren’t close at all. That teenager in the video, standing so emboldened in front of Phillips, was doing exactly what he was taught to do, by his school, by his friends, by his country.


To many, we are a bad joke of history’s making and nothing more. That is, until we aren’t. Until Americans are forced to stare an image so reflective and definitive of that erasure that they must, for a moment, reconsider their country’s true dedication to reparative justice and social reform. Standing Rock managed this, for a moment. There was a mass of people. There were dogs and tear gas and machine guns. For a while, that did the trick. Americans watched and tweeted and wrote their representatives. And then all that faded. The act was over.

There’s no reason to suspect this time will be that different. The rest is almost written out. Phillips, already interviewed by the Washington Post, will be interviewed by other major media outlets, and that’s great news, a hell of an improvement over having non-Natives talk about whatever issues of ours they value at the moment. Maybe the kid’s parents will be interviewed. He’ll likely issue an apology through a lawyer; maybe he’ll even write part of it himself. Op-eds like this one will be published. None of it matters, not really, but because of that boy’s smile, you’re here. It struck at that place in your heart where guilt and rage bubble. And so now the impetus is on the Native people that have platforms to say something, anything, because moments like these, where we have more than just our own attention, are rare.


The choice must be made every time: What lesson is thrust upon us to teach now? Should we take the time to detail the long history of Native American veterans and their history in the United States military? Should I share an anecdote from my cousins or grandfather or great-great grandfather and their time in the service? Should I write a piece full of lament for how much more vitriol was reserved for the fighters of the Vietnam War than the architects? Should I link out to the moment when our current president insulted Natives across the nation in front of the legendary Diné code-talkers of World War II?

Or should I go down the path of private religious schools and their toxic relationships to Indigenous peoples on this continent? Should I take the time to unfold the cultural assimilation—genocide if you’re feeling especially pissed—in which the colonizers snatched our children and sent them to schools to drown them with religion and white American culture?


Or maybe I should try to modernize the message; maybe I should write a thoughtful column pointing you to the ripples that drifted out from that precedent, bringing you up to date on the ongoing legal assault on the Indian Child Welfare Act. Maybe I should point to the goals and the highlights of the Indigenous Peoples March. Or maybe I just explain how it feels shitty to be surrounded by people who aren’t like you, laughing at you because they aren’t like you, because it’s such a basic human truth that even the most smooth-brained, wall-horny psycho couldn’t deny it.

It always winds up being a lesson because nothing has been learned. It can never be a shitty teen just being a shitty teen, or a politician just making a miscalculation, or an NFL team just using a red-painted face. We don’t have that privilege yet.


A teen taking on a dare or just looking for a laugh by standing in front of an Indian man is not of paramount importance in the grand scheme; it’s just what you’re watching and what you’re reading. It’s what your feed rolled out and your newspapers covered and television channels replayed, because the image is so striking and immovable that you are pressed to either fight for it or ignore it. But by the end of the fight, the smile is all you’ll remember. The rest of it, the lessons we try to teach or Phillips’ tearful words from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, they’ll fade. Because that’s real life and it takes time and that smile is but a moment. The lessons people need to learn happen over decades and centuries and generations. Phillips’ trembling voice carries years of oppression and discrimination and drives a stake through your heart. But that smile, that smile is all you’ll see—unless you challenge yourself to see more.