Historiography and Indigenous Walls

The encounter quickly became viral. An Omaha elder Nathan Phillips standing face-to-face with a young, white, Catholic teenager. The teen is clad in a MAGA hat and armed with a smirk that anyone who has dealt with teenage boys (or, even worse, was once a teenage boy!) will know very well. Phillips beats his drum and chants. It’s a striking image that has left many people trying to understand the proper context and lay claim to the resulting narrative. As the narrative continues to unfold, one statement Phillips made struck my eye.

“This is indigenous lands. You’re not supposed to have walls here; we never did.”[1]

I am interested in how we tell our stories. The act of storytelling is inherently biased: narrators choose which details to include or omit, which ones to emphasize or downplay, and (by their very nature) provide perspective. When the story being told is history, the bias of the source is as interesting as the facts presented. People are storytellers and use rhetoric to further their reading of history. How we choose to tell the story behind the powerful picture is currently up for grabs. But this quote by Phillips suggests a telling of history that needs to be examined.

Historiography around this Indigenous peoples and colonialism is fraught with difficulties. It is easy for well-intentioned individuals trying to give balanced account to fall into the trap of romanticizing and essentializing Indigenous peoples. But our narration of history also needs to be factual and nuanced. The issue with a broad statement like Phillips made is quite simple: those seeking to discredit his message feel they can do so quite easily. Images of Indigenous walled settlements will be posted to “prove” that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about (indeed, tweets doing just that are not difficult to find), or snarky comments will be made about how maybe the tribes would better off today if they had built walls (and, again, it isn’t hard to find commenters doing that).

Factually, Phillips is, of course, wrong. Phillip’s claim is quite possibly true for his own people, but it is not true for all Indigenous peoples. It is indisputable that some tribes surrounded their villages with palisades. There were walled villages or forts within the Iroquois Confederacy, for instance.[2] Europeans would equip their Indigenous allies with knowledge and technology necessary to try to beat such technology, such as when Samuel Champlain and his Aboriginal allies (the Wendat and Algonquin) utilized a siege tower in a failed attack on a Onondaga village.[3] But even among peoples who didn’t live in walled villages, Indigenous peoples were not necessarily wall-adverse. Bands and individuals were certainly willing to tie their fortunes to the walled trading forts.[4] These were people who did not necessarily find the construction of walls to be antithetical to their relationship to the land. A nuanced look is essential when dealing with complex people groups with complex relationships to the world around them.

(see [2])

How history is to be properly read is always contested and different groups will try to put forth different orthodoxies about how we ought to understand our history. I agree with the sentiment of Nathan Phillips yet strongly disagree with the reading of history he offers. At the surface an essentialist statement appears to be offered (Indigenous peoples did not build walls) which is, quite simply, incorrect because it’s offered with no nuance (some nations did; walling off villages versus erecting walls across a nation’s borders are not necessarily similar). The most sympathetic way to read his statement is not assume that Nathan Phillips is speaking on behalf of all Indigenous peoples. This also means that Phillips’ context (being an Omaha) should be taken seriously. What Phillips’ said might very well be true, but not true if we assume that all Indigenous people are essentially the same.

The important truth I see communicated in Phillips’ statement is that walls say something about us and how we narrate our history. The Mohawk people of the Iroquois Confederacy who now reside in Quebec and the Omaha people of the American Midwest likely face many of the same issues under different federal governments. Walls, alliances, and treaties have made little difference, it seems. The lesson to be gleaned is not a simple “do walls work?” – the answer is probably the profoundly unsatisfying “of course walls work sometimes.” The question might not even be “what would a border wall say about America?” Rather, the first question might be “what is it about how we tell our story that guides us to these types of positions?”

The Osage theologian George E. “Tink” Tinker writes that a sense of “spatiality and rootedness…. shows up in nearly all aspects of our [North American Indigenous peoples] existence, in our ceremonial structures, our symbols, our architecture, and in the symbolic parameters of a tribe’s universe.”[5] Tinker, speaking of his own people’s villages, notes that “the architectural geography of our spirituality functioned politically to give the village group cohesion; it functions at a deep spiritual level that still pertains for a great many Indian people today.”[6] Stories and physical space are linked. How groups react to and shape the world reflects their values. And I believe that this is the meaning behind Phillips’ words: walls say something about your relationship with the land and people.

In the background of the viral footage is religion. Phillips, with his drum, is armed with his Indigenous religious heritage. In front of him, young Catholic teens. It seems that prior to Nathan Phillips actions, Black Hebrew Israelites had been preaching loudly and attempting to antagonize the young group of Catholic students. A cohesive narrative is hard to pin together at this point. Rather than trying to narrate a clear story of what happened, I think the important task is to first acknowledge our own foundational stories. I turn again to Tinker, who affirms a need for communal theological reflection that “must become an exercise in expressing the self-identity of whole communities…. [W]e need stories rather than treatises, rather than essentialist discourse, problem resolution, or structuralist puzzle solving…. For theology of this magnitude, we must have stories.”[7] Stories brought all of these individuals and groups into each other’s orbit. What are these stories and how do we choose to tell them?

[1]. YouTube video, “Respect,” posted by “KC NOLAND”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8laqRi6CWWU, timestamp:0m09s-0m17s; Vincent Schilling, “The whole story: Before and after video of Nathan Phillips, #MAGAyouth and more,” https://newsmaven.io/indiancountrytoday/news/the-whole-story-before-and-after-video-of-nathan-phillips-magayouth-and-more-_O6lTVo8M0muOgi6Foug-w/, Indian Country Today, posted January 20, 2019, (accessed January 21, 2019)

[2]. Olive Patricia Dickason with William Newbigging, A Concise History of Canada’s First Nations, second edition, (Toronto, ON: Oxford University Press, 2010), 69.

[3]. Adam Shoalts, A History of Canada in Ten Maps: Epic Stories of Charting a Mysterious Land, trade paperback reprint; 2017, (Toronto, ON: Penguin Random House Canada Limited, 2018), 100-2.

[4]. Olive Patricia Dickason with William Newbigging, A Concise History of Canada’s First Nations, 81; c.f. Adam Shoalts’ account of Matonabbee, A History of Canada in Ten Maps, 160-78

[5]. George E. “Tink” Tinker, American Indian Liberation: A Theology of Sovereignty, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2008), 72.

[6]. Ibid., 73.

[7]. Ibid., 75.