Nathan Phillips and Nick Sandmann sparked a nationwide debate after video surfaced of their confrontation on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. There are myriad perspectives on the event, and reporter Jacqueline Keeler writes that this video “reveals the triumvirate of experiences that largely define American history.”
Keeler is a citizen of the Navajo Nation and a descendant of the Yankton Sioux Tribe. Audie Cornish of NPR’s All Things Considered sat down with her to discuss her reporting following last Friday’s events.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Audie Cornish: Let’s start with the optics of these past few days. The video is released showing Nathan Phillips and Nick Sandmann followed by a strong condemnation of Sandmann, but then an almost mea culpa by some in the media as other videos emerge. What do you think is being lost in this wider conversation?
Jacqueline Keeler: I see it as a very interesting moment, a moment where three streams of American experience all met, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. We were all coming at this from different directions based on our own experiences that we’ve had under the system that we live under. For hundreds of years it’s been a system of white supremacy that accompanies colonialism, and so you have a group of young men who benefit from that and live in an environment where they appear to not be aware of how other groups view their privilege. And then you have a situation where the adults in their lives have not informed them of how to live in a pluralistic society.
We heard Nick Sandmann talking about his intent, what he thought he was doing. A lot of people are reading into his smile and the look on his face. How do you think we should discuss the idea of intent with respect to racism?
I think that he should never have never been put in that position to begin with. The adults there should have removed him from the situation. I can’t predict how any young person, even a young Native person, would act in a situation like that, having been harassed [by a small group of Black Hebrew Israelites] and then confronted. I think that’s the way in which we, as adults, must shepherd the conversation and experiences of young people in a pluralistic society when they encounter things that they have not encountered before. I think it was handled very poorly and if I was his parents I would be angry at the chaperones for putting him in that position.
You’ve been to Covington and have spoken with Native American people in that community. It sounds like you’re bringing a lot of sympathy towards the young men in this story; why?
I don’t know if sympathy is the right term, but I do recognize that minors have a different role. The expectations are on the adults to guide them, but I do note that there is a huge difference in expectation: We have the same folks who are upset about how these boys are being judged, but when young black men are murdered for wearing a hoodie, they expect them to be able to negotiate that space much more carefully, right? When they are paying for their choices with their lives. Either that expectation is applied equally or isn’t applied at all.
From where we are now — what are the next steps? What can people, on all sides, come away with?
The next steps are beginning to understand the Native American perspective to a much greater degree. The AIM, American Indian Movement, and the Greater Cincinnati Native American Coalition, what they wanted to speak to the diocese about was that they wanted the Catholic Church, in particular, to recognize its role in the harms done to Native people.
Like the boarding school systems where children were abused for speaking their language and for their culture, and were abused sexually. It’s an intergenerational problem. Native people are dealing with a lot of trauma that’s been done for generations to their family members, and they’re not able to operate in the way that they could have if their societies had not been damaged in this way by American policy and by Catholic policy.