The January incident between students from Covington Catholic High School and Native American elder, Nathan Phillips, felt deeply personal when it first circulated the news and went viral on social media. Besides living a few minutes away from the high school and a few blocks from the Archdiocese in Covington, KY, I wasn’t sure why my neighborhood kids mocking Native American spiritual and sacred dances felt so close to home and pierced right through the heart. Even today, with decreasing news coverage, I can’t stop thinking about how important this confrontation between white Catholic kids and a Native American elder is in terms of which direction I want to go with my leadership formation, activism, and even spiritual growth.
Most of my colleagues and friends were in conversation after that day, so I’m probably not saying anything new here. Many of us were shocked and offended for our elder. But as conversations went on, some of us began to justify the kids’ actions. I hope not to lose sight of what I’m advocating for as people urge me to feel more compassion for the high schoolers, to see both sides of the story. Though, as Howard Zinn said, “You can’t stay neutral on a moving train.” When I first joined the Institute for Spirituality and Social Justice Program at Xavier University in Cincinnati, OH in 2017, I had a radical notion I would be able to help change the current Roman Catholic system to be inclusive of all. In my last State of Formation post, I also mentioned Roman Catholics practically eradicating indigenous spirituality in the Philippines in the 16th century. I wanted to be a part of the movement helping empower our few indigenous voices, and I wanted Roman Catholics, particularly in the Philippines, to better understand our spiritual roots and connections with our indigenous cultures. At the same time, I was picturing Roman Catholics increasingly being inspired by varying faith traditions, being in solidarity by having meaningful conversations, and also drawing wisdom and knowledge from our native elders and ancestors. As part of the system of oppression—as part of the history of forcing our religion onto others—I feel we have to take responsibility when it comes to reciprocity and understanding indigenous cultures.
As I processed the incident in my head, I began to understand why it was so hurtful. In my opinion, what happened is just one example of the disconnect we have in the US between young people and our elders, between different spiritualities and races. It reminded me of colonialists mocking natives, calling them primitive and having no wisdom to offer, thinking Catholicism was superior to native spirituality. In 1899, the Boston Sunday Globe published a front page headline called, “Expansion, Before and After [American colonization of the Philippines],” mocking native Filipinos’ ways and beings. Fast forward to the 21st century, and we’re watching a dominant group outside of Lincoln Memorial confront the marginalized and oppressed. When our white, heterosexual, cisgender, male youth react in mockery toward oppressed groups of people, and then adults fight to justify their kids’ actions, I can’t help but worry about what this means for indigenous and other underrepresented voices. When a Native American elder comes up to us peacefully (and to recognize it as such), it is an opportunity for us to walk away in shame or to give our respects, knowing what our elders and Native Americans have and continue to endure. Instead, a Native American elder will be sued by the kid’s lawyer.
It is not too late, but there’s still a sense of urgency. People of different faiths, spiritualities, or faith traditions living in the United States, with utmost respect for indigenous cultures, can help by further learning about, elevating, and empowering Native American voices and history. Then, when an Omaha Native American elder comes up to us sharing ancestral knowledge, chanting a movement song, and beating on a hand drum, we know exactly what this means, what it’s crying out for, and that it is a part of all of our healing. It is not to be feared, not to be mocked—but a call for peace and solidarity.
A few months ago, I wrote the above piece on the incident between Covington Catholic High School students and Nathan Phillips, a Native American elder. Experiencing racism, prejudices, and biases is exhausting, and I wanted finally to choose a side and be unapologetic when it came to my reactions. For years, I made excuses for people who’ve wronged underrepresented groups. For my own health and well-being, I realized I couldn’t continue being neutral and therefore silent. This proved to be much harder than I thought. After I wrote the piece, I “felt bad” and thought, “What would my conservative and/or religious friends think of me?” I went back on my word and asked myself the same questions. “Isn’t he just a kid? Shouldn’t I cut him some slack? Maybe he didn’t know any better?” I was headed right back to a neutral zone, to be honest.
Then, I asked myself if I can be unapologetic and forgiving at the same time. I was angry with adults who defended the high school students. I was even angry with some of my liberal Christian friends who were upset with the student’s reaction at first but then completely switched sides upon listening to his version of the story. But I felt bad for feeling angry. Is being angry spiritual of me? Shouldn’t I let it go and start forgiving people?
I finally told myself I have every right to feel angry, and I have to be a relentless activist fighting for people’s rights. I want to allow myself to think about the systems in place and how we need change. I recently read an article about Martin Luther King, Jr.—known for his nonviolence—and how we must remember that he was not neutral. He was unapologetic when he opposed others. People hated him and what he chose to advocate. He continued his activism despite the opposition against his views. Today, many people agree with him but the man they agree with has been whitewashed. At the time, he was considered defiant.
I also need to remember Jesus as an unashamed activist. I still hear “turn the other cheek” (referring to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount) as a call to accept the injustice, to take a passive approach. However, in Jesus’ time, “turn the other cheek” was actually a much more clever reaction to one’s offender. A slave owner using their left hand to backslap was considered unclean and illegal. At the same time, the slave owner had no choice but to back slap if a slave turned the other cheek, as one could not hit a slave the same way one would hit an equal. The slave owner would be left speechless and embarrassed. Did this cause Jesus to feel bad for the slave owner? This is a lesson on nonviolent defiance, not passive submission.
Ever since I became unapologetic, I felt more at peace with myself. Or rather, I feel more at peace with my anger, my thoughts, and my views. I am working on decolonizing my thoughts. I no longer feel like I absolutely have to please a person whose ideas or ideals I oppose. I don’t have to beg a president to please accept me as his equal. I no longer have to wonder if I’m being irrational by siding with Native American elders. This does not mean I cannot forgive or think the other side doesn’t have a right to their own opinions.
It means I am finally able to say I have a right to mine.