• Latoya Aroha Rule (left) and Kaleesha Morris, address at the first annual Indigenous Peoples March in Washington, Friday, 18 January. (Frank Hopper)Source: Frank Hopper
A confrontation at the Indigenous Peoples March in Washington provides a learning moment for Aboriginal delegates.
Frank Hopper

23 Jan 2019 - 3:13 PM  UPDATED 23 Jan 2019 - 3:18 PM

The First Annual Indigenous Peoples March proceeded from the Bureau of Indian Affairs Building in Washington, D.C to the Lincoln Memorial just after 9am last Friday, where a rally was held in front of the memorial.

The demonstration was attended by around a thousand people with speakers from many different Indigenous tribes from around the globe sharing their stories and the issues they faced.

The event was intended to provide a focal point for the many Indigenous groups working on issues commonly faced by all indigenous people, such as missing and murdered Indigenous women, climate justice, human trafficking and police brutality.

Earlier in the day, Aboriginal rights activists Kaleesha Morris and Latoya Aroha Rule, briefly addressed the rally.

Ms Morris held a Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance flag while Ms Rule described some of the issues faced by Indigenous people in Australia, such as a nuclear waste dumping on Aboriginal land in South Australia and the damage wrought by the Adani Carmichael Coal mine in Queensland.

Ms Rule also described the higher rates of incarceration of Aboriginal people and the alarmingly high number of Aboriginal deaths in police custody. Ms Rule told the rally of her own brother, Wayne ‘Fella’ Morrison, who died in police custody two years ago after being restrained by 12 corrections officers.

Conflict between two non-Native groups

Later, the demonstration was marred when students from a catholic high school in Kentucky surrounded one Native American Elder at the rally and mocked him as he sang a traditional Native song.

The conflict began at around 5pm after the group of about 100 students, mostly from Covington Catholic High School, began acting in an intimidating manner toward five African American men who are members of the Black Hebrew Israelite religion.

In a video posted to YouTube, Shar Yaqataz Banyamyan, representing the Black Hebrew Israelite groups House of Israel Pull-up Boys and House of Israel D.C., can be heard rebuking the white students from Covington Catholic High School.

The students were waiting for their ride home after attending a “March for Life” anti-abortion rally that happened elsewhere in Washington earlier in the day.

Mr Banyamyan and others in his group can be heard taunting the Catholic school students, many of whom were wearing red “Make America Great Again” baseball caps.

They call the students “crackers,” and “a bunch of Donald Trump ... children.”

The students responded with jeers and chants, and encircled the five African American men.

Surrounded and outnumbered, the five Black Hebrew Israelites became visibly concerned.

“Look at this,” Mr Banyamyan said. “There’s five of us and they got us surrounded!”

A Native warrior steps up

At that moment, Omaha elder and ex-marine Vietnam war veteran Nathan Phillips emerged from behind Mr Banyamyan, playing a Native drum and singing an ancient indigenous song commonly called the American Indian Movement Honor Song, also known as the Indian Anthem by Native activists in the 1960s.

More men then appeared from behind Mr Banyamyan and Mr Phillips and another Native man led the group in singing.

“Here come Gad!” Mr Banyamyan cried, referring to Mr Phillips as a member of the Gaddites, one of the lost twelve tribes of Israel. “Look at Gad not playing! He came to the rescue!”

Attempting to defuse the situation with singing, Mr Phillips then approached the largest group of students and after a few moments, they began to mockingly sing along with him.

Another member of the Black Hebrew Israelite said, “He calmed all these spirits down! These spirits were getting demonic and Gad came and calmed all these spirits down!”

The students then closed in around Phillips.

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After the confrontation, Ms Morris, a proud Gumbaynggirr woman, said she was still processing what happened.

“What inspired me was Uncle’s strength and his resilience,” she said.

Later, Ms Morris recalled how she and others from the Australian delegation joined Mr Phillips at a gathering outside a catholic church in Washington.

“You know just from the look in his eyes that he’s been up against this time and time again and he has that skin to be able to withstand that hate and that mockery and that ignorance,” she said.

“As young, Indigenous people standing behind him tonight and seeing that strength, and mobilizing it as well – doing the grunt work on the ground that we should be doing, [with] our elders guiding the way– it was definitely a manifestation of the things we spoke about in the rally.

“The movement is not just to talk about dismantling structures and decolonizing things. That’s very important, but for us we’re really trying to build the cultural strength and integrity of our young people so they can withstand what they need to, and also to have the strength to move through that decolonizIng journey.”

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– Frank Hopper is an Alaska Native, born in Juneau to the Kaagwaantaan clan of the Tlingit nation. His stories appear in Indian Country Today, Last Real Indians and The Stranger.