Is Redemption Possible for the Students of Covington Catholic High School?

Moments like this easily incite hate, it is possible to repair and heal divides?

by Edgar Villanueva

Perhaps more than any other community or culture, Native Americans value the wisdom, the experience and the sacrifice of elders. We understand that younger generations do not exist in a vacuum. There is no us without them.

That’s why watching a throng of white Covington Catholic High School students mock, harass and attempt to intimidate Nathan Phillipsand other tribal leaders during the annual Indigenous People’s March in Washington, D.C. was so triggering.

First, the encounter happened on the exact date (Jan. 18) my own tribe, the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, celebrated the 61stanniversary of the Battle of Hayes Pond where we took matters into our own hands to remove theKu Klux Klan from our community. We were already in a period of remembering, and then we watched a group of Gen Zs disrespect and harass our elders using similar intimidation tactics.

Next, I couldn’t help but note the irony of watching Indigenous people be terrorized just days before the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, and in the very area where Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech more than 50 years ago. Dr. King himself spoke out against the genocide and mistreatment of Native Americans.

Finally, I found it ironic that the Catholic high school students were in D.C. for the pro-life, March for Life rally, yet made a conscious decision to disrespect the lives of people in their direct line of sight.

Bathed in white supremacy culture, these young people went out of their way to humiliate people who were different from them. They seemed to personify a belief in a hierarchy of human value.

If this were an isolated incident, we could approach it with disgust and move on. But the mistake of racism is viewing individual actions as individual actions rather than systemic failures.

Whether consciously or not, the behavior of these students was reminiscent of the centuries-long treatment of many people of color. You are hard-pressed to find a Native American, African American, African, Asian American, Latino American who has not had the experience of being intimidated based on race. Most people of color can easily recount being the source of derision for our features, our food, cultural norms, or belief systems. We know what it’s like to have mainstream culture tell us that something is wrong with us or make light of our suffering or experience.

Just days before Catholic high school students were filmed attempting to intimidate and harass tribal elders, President Trump was challenged for derisivelyreferring to U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) as ‘Pocahontas,’ and stating she should have given her Instagram Live remarks from Wounded Knee or the Battle of Little Bighorn. One tribal lawyer rightly noted that the trauma of these periods was not erased with the passage of time. They are passed from generation to generation, both in oral history and in bodily disease. Likewise, without intervention, racism and the upholding of white supremacy is passed on to future generations.

Remarkably, even in the face of hatred, Indigenous people rise. Surrounded by a group of hostile young people who refused to let him pass, Mr. Phillips, a Vietnam veteran and tribal elder, tapped into his connection to the Creator and demonstrated a resilience that is both admirable and shocking. While undoubtedly intimidated, Mr. Phillips raised his voice in song and channeled the memory of his late wife. He was love personified.

In today’s #cancel culture, where the humanity of others is quickly forgotten, it is easy to fight fire with fire and return evil for evil. But the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” At times like these, Dr. King’s words take on special significance.

Following his path of nonviolence is not always easy. When I learned of the behavior of the Covington young people, I could hear the words of Martin Luther King Jr. in my head, but I admit — the fierceness of Malcolm X was in my blood.

For a moment, I wanted to track down the boy who stood in Nathan Phillips’ face showcasing a smirk that seemed synonymous with a superiority complex and call him to account for his behavior. But the path to true healing suggests that we should use this as an opportunity to teach young people a different way. There are times that we fight (like the Lumbee did when we ejected the KKK from our land) and there are times that we take a different approach.

While they need to be held accountable, my wish for these students is that they truly apologize and seek a path of healing. I want a better and hopeful future for them. I pray that they experience a spiritual heart transplant that leads to true transformation. I hope their school and families seek healing as well and that they learn to understand that their belief in white supremacy is itself a form of self-oppression from which freedom is needed.

Is it reasonable to hope that the very person the Covington High School students attempted to mock becomes the person whose values they aspire to emulate? Is redemption for them possible? I do believe so.

Edgar Villanueva (@VillanuevaEdgar) is an author and social justice philanthropy expert. He serves as on the boards of Native Americans in PhilanthropyNDN Collective and the Andrus Family Fund, and is vice president of programs and advocacy at The Schott Foundation.

Edgar Villanueva