John SwiftBird, a 39-year-old Oglala Lakota man originally from Pine Ridge, S.D., says he is no stranger to racism.
But SwiftBird, who plays a drum and sings on the Plaza a few days a week, hadn’t encountered that kind of behavior during his two years in the Santa Fe area — until Monday, when he said a group of women approached and started “bouncing up and down, making noise and stuff,” as he performed Lakota songs.
SwiftBird said he interpreted their actions as racist.
A video of the incident captured by an onlooker and circulated on social media has outraged locals who see the encounter in the same vein as a viral Washington, D.C., encounter this month, in which a group of boys in “Make America Great Again” hats appeared to mock a Native American man drumming and singing during an Indigenous Peoples March.
“It’s obviously apparent that the behavior of the Covington MAGA boys created a trend where young people — especially privileged, non-Native [young people] — think it’s OK to publicly humiliate Native people,” SwiftBird’s wife, Vandee Khalsa-SwiftBird, said in an interview. “It’s nothing new; it’s just that it’s being caught on camera now.”
Steve Wilkerson, who was visiting Santa Fe this week, caught the tail end of the encounter on camera. His video shows four young women wearing nearly identical black outfits and hats in front of SwiftBird as he sings.
Three of the women appear to be dancing, making noises and bowing perhaps two feet in front of SwiftBird until Wilkerson approaches them with his camera. At that point, the women use their hats to cover their faces and start walking away.
“You should be embarrassed,” Wilkerson said in the video, following them as they walked away from the Plaza. “What are your names? Come on, face the camera, you were brave a minute ago.”
“I’m going to [expletive] kill you … kill your mother,” is audible in the video, but it is unclear who says it.
Wilkerson follows the women toward their vehicle, a black SUV with Georgia license plates.
“Tell us your names. Tell us why you’re racists,” Wilkerson says to the women.
“We ain’t no racists,” someone replies. The women, pursued by Wilkerson, get in the SUV and start backing away as the video ends.
Efforts to locate the women in the video were unsuccessful.
SwiftBird’s wife forwarded the footage to the media. In an interview, she said she wants people to know what happened and wants to hold the women accountable for their actions.
Video of the encounter racked up more than 3,500 views in three hours on Facebook and drew dozens of comments — some voicing outrage, others questioning what happened.
“Are we just supposed to assume they said/did something offensive?” one commenter asked. “I guessed we missed the beginning of it?”
Another replied: “They shouldn’t be making fun of him. They were pretty much mocking him.”
Wilkerson said when he first heard the women “screaming, hooting and hollering” on the Plaza, he watched for a moment to assess the situation. He saw the women “dancing at [SwiftBird] in a disrespectful manner … they were totally disrespectful, and after what happened recently in Washington, maybe they felt this was OK to do.”
He added that he approached the women with his camera because he thought if he filmed them, they would be ashamed of what they were doing.
“We live in dangerous times where a dangerous precedent has been set, where people can behave in a harmful and racist way toward others. That’s not OK,” Wilkerson said.
On Thursday afternoon, SwiftBird again brought his drum to the same spot on the Plaza and prepared to sing.
Monday’s encounter, he said, brought up a lot of unhappy childhood memories. But it wasn’t going to stop him from singing.
“It is hurtful. It was aimed to be hurtful, but it didn’t get to me,” he said, setting up to perform in the chilly afternoon light. “… Otherwise I wouldn’t be back here.”