Seizing the Power Within the First Amendment


On the weekend before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Omaha elder and Vietnam veteran Nathan Phillips was participating in the Ingenious Peoples’ March when he selflessly broke ranks and stepped between a belligerent cluster of Black Hebrew Israelites and energetic students from Covington Catholic High School. As he sang and drummed to mollify escalating tensions, the students surrounded him and whooped, mimicking the arm-hatcheting motion practiced by derisive American Indian sports’ mascots. One stood directly in front of Phillips, locked eyes, and either “smirked” or “listened,” depending on which interpretation of events one believes. Phillips later stated, “These young men were beastly and these old Black individuals [were] their prey, and I stood in between them.” Despite numerous cellphone videos capturing the episode, neither side agrees about what could have occurred had Phillips not intervened. What is indisputable is that tempers had cooled by the time his song concluded. In both protesting for his people and diffusing tensions between angry factions, Nathan Phillips seized the power of his First Amendment rights, and civil discourse is better for his having done so.

The First Amendment is the bedrock on which America’s exchange of ideas is built. After drafting the Articles of the United States’ Constitution, the framers added ten amendments known as the Bill of Rights. Principal amongst these is the first entry, which guarantees citizens the freedom to practice or refrain from religion, voice one’s opinions, have an independent press, assemble peaceably, and petition elected leaders. There’s power within these rights and everyone who’s written on behalf of Native issues or taken a stand against a pipeline or mining project has exercised them. They’re the reason we can spread our messages to the masses, march to capitol buildings, occupy public spaces, and gather signatures that show people have opinions that demand to be heard. Yet, these five freedoms only have transformative clout if we use them.

The United States’ government is made up of three branches—the executive, legislative, and judicial, the last of which has become the most impactful. Centuries before he was transformed into a hip-hop musical star, Alexander Hamilton labeled the judicial branch as the “least dangerous,” reasoning that the executive launched wars, the legislature allocated money, and the Supreme Court merely interpreted the law. The flaw in this reasoning comes down to job security. While the President and Congress are subject to future elections that decide the length of their tenure, the nine justices on the Supreme Court are appointed for life. This has gradually led judges to recognize that they can seize opportunities to shape American governance free of political ramifications by way of their permanent seat on the bench.

In The Most Dangerous Branch, David A. Kaplan chronicles how the Supreme Court has morphed from its unbiased charter into a partisan group whose power goes unchecked. Since 2010, the court has acquiesced to hearing zero cases on the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms yet no fewer than 35 cases based on the First Amendment’s freedoms. The court has ruled that “corporations are people” in terms of election contributions, same-sex marriages are legal and protected by the Constitution, and bakers can deny cakes to would-be clients whose pursuit of happiness they disagree with. In reading Kaplan’s book, one can’t help but be leery of the court’s next decree, but also compelled to speak out about cases that matter.

Fortunately for us, the keys to amplifying messages we hold dear are ingrained within the rights we all share, and that includes bringing our concerns through the court system. Whether protecting traditional practices such as using peyote in ceremonies or partaking in recent actions such as rallying readers with a blog post, the First Amendment’s power must not be overlooked. It allows us to freely share ideas and unite behind a common cause, and at times that means knocking on the proverbial doors of the government’s three branches.

While it’s easier to sit on the sidelines watching others shape social discourse, silent apathy is often the death of just causes. In that vein, I implore you all to write, record, and publish opinions you value, petition leaders who are debating actions that affect you, assemble when doing so matters, and, if so moved, pray unapologetically for outcomes you believe in. Harness the power of the First Amendment.

Phillips was exercising his right to assemble and speak at the same site where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. The ramifications of Phillips’ deeds are still being debated, but what’s clear is that in those moments he embodied the spirit of Dr. King who used his voice to help reshape America as a more perfect union. As King stated, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Whenever necessary, may we each have the courage to raise our voice and beat our drum in the face of moral adversity.

Ryan Winn teaches English, theater, and communication at College of Menominee Nation.


Kaplan, D.A. (2018). The Most Dangerous Branch: Inside the Supreme Court’s Assault on the Constitution. [digital audiobook]. New York: Penguin Audio.

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in Writer’s Corner or any other opinion columns published by the Tribal College Journal (TCJ) do not necessarily reflect the opinions of TCJ or the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.

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