His side of the story: Nathan Phillips wants to talk about Covington
Nathan Phillips. Photograph: Greg Kahn/The Guardian
On a rainy Thursday morning, Nathan Phillips of the Omaha nation and I met for an interview over breakfast at Le Caprice, a family-owned Mexican bakery in Washington DC. Phillips had slept just one hour the night before and when I first caught sight of him trudging across 14th Street, he had his hood up to conceal his identity from any would-be harassers.
It had been six days since Phillips, 64, stood nose-to-nose with Nicholas Sandmann, a student at Covington Catholic high school on the steps outside the Lincoln Memorial. The stare-down became a national controversy when videos circulated showing Phillips singing and beating a drum, eyes locked with Sandmann. The teenager wore the unmistakable Maga headgear of the Trump campaign and a grin. In some clips, some of his classmates could be seen performing the tomahawk-chop gesture popularized by sports teams with Native American mascots like the Atlanta Braves.
The bitter disagreement over the interpretation has come to epitomize political and racial divisions at the core of American society. Its viral aftermath has taken such an unreal turn that the truth is no longer a mere question of fact – it’s a matter of power and perspective. One version of the events sees them as the latest examples of the Trump-era intensification of racial discourse. The other views the liberal outrage spurred by the incident as a social justice crusade against an innocent young man victimized by protesters and the press.
Sandmann’s family soon hired RunSwitch, a media relations firm with strong ties to the Republican party, to handle the crisis, and L Lin Wood, a high-profile libel attorney known for aggressively pursuing lawsuits against the media. Sandmann has complained that the video was spreading “misinformation” about the incident.
On Wednesday, the day before Phillips and I met, the Today Show aired a pre-recorded interview with Sandmann in which the host asked almost no tough questions of the 16-year-old, who, dressed in muted tones and speaking in a soft voice, presented as a sympathetic youngster. As the counter-offensive picked up traction, widespread sympathy for Phillips began to turn.
This whole thing has gotten away from us – all of us – but none more than Nathan Phillips. “I’d like to get this squashed and done with,” he says. “Then I find myself in this place and I think everyone is telling me, because of my spiritual walk, this is where Creator put me.”
Phillips is tall, maybe a little bit over six feet, but with a wiry frame. He has tawny sunken cheeks, a silvery pencil-thin mustache and beard with wispy shoulder-length gray-black hair. As we sat down in the bakery – his coffee in a to-go cup, mine in ceramic mug – he joked that the waitstaff favored me. “Dang, where’s my fancy cup, lady?” He teased. “No, I’m just tricking you.”
His inflection – the way he drew out “dang” – reminded me of many other Native men of his generation, a familiarity rooted in our shared identity. As he chuckled, I counted all of four teeth in his mouth.
Unlike Sandmann, Phillips does not have a PR firm to represent him and his side of the story, or an attorney to challenge critical journalists. His support team consists of two people: Ray Kingfisher, a northern Cheyenne who has known him for decades, and Daniel Nelson, a non-Native “ally” and program director of the Lakota Peoples Project. Phillips had been couch-surfing with them since he came to DC for the Indigenous Peoples March last week.
Part of him, understandably, wanted out of the situation. “Maybe after this happened, I should have just hopped in my car, went back to Michigan,” he thought aloud. “I’m becoming this rightwing media thing, you know?”
Phillips does not look like the average Today Show viewer, nor does he have much in common with them. Suburban Americans do not look at him, as they do Sandmann, and see their sons or their own adolescence. Empathy, according to psychological research, is most easily expressed among individuals of the same race. Native Americans, according to the census, account for just 2% of the population. Plus, Phillips is long-winded – a quality encouraged in Indigenous cultures that doesn’t quite translate to the punchy soundbites favored in print and on cable.
Many want to hear his side of the story, but the truth is, it’s hard to tell. To really get it, he insists, we need set the record straight about who he is and where he’s coming from – and that means looking beyond what happened that cold Friday. So that’s where we begin.
Like so many other Native children, Phillips was wrenched from his birth mother by the child welfare system. Because he was raised outside the community, he never learned his Indian name or his Omaha language. Today, Native kids are almost three times more likely than the general population to be adopted out of their home, according to the National Indian Child Welfare Association. Scholars and activists say foster care has become an extension of boarding school assimilation – the same way mass incarceration is the afterlife of Jim Crow.
“I don’t like to talk about that time too much, but because it got brought up other places, I just feel like I have to address it.” For the first half hour of our conversation, Phillips weaved harrowing tales of personal abuse and deprivation between sips of coffee and political commentary.
There’s the time he ran away to the Omaha reservation in Nebraska at 14 or 15 to find his mother: “I went over there and knocked on this door and this little bitty head shot up out of this window and we locked eyes on each other, and then I could just hear her, ‘Oh!’ I mean, it was just the sweetest ‘oh’ I’ve ever heard,” he recalled, his voice quivering. “She knew I would come home one day and look for her.”
Then, there’s the time he ran away to the reservation at 16 with tragically humorous misconceptions about Indians still hunting buffalo and living in tipis and the way his cousins rejected him for being so clueless. ‘Get out of here, white boy,’ they said. ‘Go home, white boy.’ “Broke my heart, man – I just wanted to be Indian again, you know?” He said. “I was raised as a white man. I couldn’t help it.”
Then, there’s the night he came home at 17 with his first hickey. When his foster dad saw it, he knocked Phillips unconscious. And when he came to, his guardian threatened to kill him. “I was getting beat regular with a belt – I mean, ‘on the regular,’ as they say, you know: weekly, daily,” he said.
“I got tired of it when I was 17,” said Phillips. He ran away to Topeka, Kansas, where he found a Marine Corps recruiter. These were the waning years of the Vietnam war. While many, including the current president, dodged the draft, Phillips enlisted. It was his only way out. “I was either going to be a ward of the state until I was 21 or I could go into the Corps. That was the choices I had.”
Early reports identified Phillips as a Vietnam veteran. In reality he served in the Marine Corps during, but not in, Vietnam. (He refers to himself as a “Vietnam-era veteran,” which seems to have been the cause of the confusion.) Some commentators claim he misrepresented his service. Others, like the New York Post, have gone even further and called him a “liar”. Phillips is frustrated by the mix-up and the implication that he has been dishonest. If people knew the disturbing truth about those years of his life, maybe they might stop attacking him, he reasons.
At powwows and other Native gatherings like the annual ceremony held for Native American veterans that he holds in Arlington National Cemetery, Phillips is honored for his service. “There was never a question of, ‘What kind of veteran are you?’” He said. “As long as you just had that honor, nothing else mattered, you know?”
There was, in other words, acceptance and belonging among the community of veterans, Indians and Indian veterans – something that was taken away from him as a small boy.
After an honorable discharge from the marines in 1976, Phillips turned to the bottle. He didn’t come back to his culture – or “the circle”, as he puts it – until a decade later, when he and Kingfisher were students at the Native-only Haskell Indian Junior College in Lawrence, Kansas. This is also not a pretty story.
In 1988 and 1989, five members of the Haskell community – Christopher Bread, John Sandoval, Cecil Dawes Jr, Harry Oliver and Nilsa Sanchez – went missing and were murdered without explanation. Rumors about skinheads and serial killers swirled. Native parents wrote to the school to ask if their children would be safe.
Indigenous peoples are among the most vulnerable in society to abuse and foul play; more than four in five American Indian and Alaska Native people have experienced violence in their lifetime, according to a 2016 report by the National Institute of Justice. The ghastly trend of Indigenous women turning up missing and murdered has become so common that it even has its own hashtag: #MMIW. More than 90% of the perpetrators of violence against Indigenous Americans are non-Native.
In 1989, after months without much attention and few leads, the Haskell cases made the front page of the Wall Street Journal. “We walked the swamps, and the riverbeds, and the prairies, and the roadsides for them,” said Phillips. “And when we found them, it broke our heart.”
The family of one of the students, a Navajo man, whose body was found in the Kansas river, held a Native American church meeting on the hospital grounds of the college to pray for the dead 19-year-old. Phillips stood security all night outside the ceremonial tipi – a structure that members of the faith sometimes liken to a womb. At many gatherings, like the Indigenous Peoples March, he still carries that responsibility as a protector. He’s been sober now for over 30 years.
“That’s what brought me to the Indigenous Peoples March.” Phillips said, tears rolling down his cheeks. “It’s because we’re tired of this shit.”
In the community and the movement, they call him “Uncle Nate”. He participated in the Indigenous movement against the Dakota Access pipeline, camping in the path of the project at Standing Rock, making many friends throughout Indian country.
Last year, he hosted a prayer walk on the first anniversary of the encampment’s end. He carries a sacred pipe and does cultural work with young people through the Native Youth Alliance, a not-for-profit he co-founded. “They’re my teachers,” he says of the next generation.
To earn the right to carry that pipe, he had to travel what some Native people call the “Red Road.” He went through four rounds in the sweat lodge. He stayed up all night for a Native American Church meeting. And after a year of sobriety, he was put atop a hill, where he was expected to fast four days and nights to become a pipe carrier. “That first night, spirits came to me and brushed me off the hill,” he said. “Seeing things terrified me, so I left the hill and that pride—that ‘I’m a strong guy, I can go up and fast for four days and four nights without any kind of understanding of what am I doing out there.’”
Phillips tried again and again to stay on that hill. But he could never make it through. He remembers when, six years after his first attempt, on the third night of his fast, he was, once again, ready to march back down the hill. “What am I here for?” He asked himself that night. “I wanted to quit.” But he pulled through. That will to face fear and not retreat is still with him.
To explain exactly what happened at the Lincoln Memorial that day, Phillips began sketching a map of the steps in front of the reflecting pool. On the drawing, he showed where the prayer circle formed after the Indigenous Peoples March and where the four Black Hebrew Israelites were standing, proselytizing and goading whoever would listen. (Usually, in DC, they just get ignored.) In one video, a Black Israelite could be heard calling the Covington students “dusty ass crackers with that racist garbage on”.
(Sandmann’s own statement validates this: he said that African-American protestors who identified as Black Hebrew Israelites kept on saying “hateful things” to him and his classmates.)
After attending the nearby anti-abortion March for Life, the Covington Catholic students came in and out of the area throughout the afternoon, according to Phillips
, who does wonder where their parents and chaperones were that day and why they never stepped in. (Cellphone footage captured by unrelated parties in the vicinity seemed to show Covington students, Sandmann not among them, yelling at young women and other passersby.)
Towards the end of the day, around 4 or 5pm, the students returned to the steps of the memorial to wait for their chartered bus. That’s when, according to Phillips and others, things got out of hand. The Black Israelites began taunting the kids. The students responded – some with words, others with gestures.
Many Covington students, in Phillips’ estimate, responded to the four Black preachers. In a particularly bizarre exercise of masculinity and domination, a few students removed their shirts and began performing a school dance and chant that looked like a bootleg haka. “These guys and those guys was about the distance from here to that wall right there,” Phillips said, pointing to the back of the cafe, about 20ft away.
It was at that point that a young bearded Pawnee man approached Phillips. “Uncle, we’ve got to do something,” he said.
“I don’t want to get in the middle of that.” Phillips replied. “It’s like a race war.”
“Sing a song!” the young man said, pushing a drum into Phillips hand.
Phillips flashed back to that night on the hill and the mornings in camp at Standing Rock. “When I put the drum in my hand and I thought about it, I thought: ‘I’m going to pray here.’”
The song Phillips chose is the anthem of the American Indian Movement (Aim). It is, for many Native people, a song of pride, awakening and empowerment. But for Phillips, it is also an ode to loss: his brother died at an Aim party in the 1970s.
“When I got here to this point and started singing,” Phillips said, pointing to a spot between the circle and the crowd on his hand-drawn map, “that’s when the spirit took over.”
Phillips’ initial intention was to step between the students and Black Israelites, sing and retreat. But as he approached the students, the situation felt more volatile. “That’s when I had a conscious thought of: we’re in a dangerous situation here.”
Philips says he then looked for a gap in the crowd and saw an opening on the steps heading up towards the monument. He looked down to find his footing. When he looked up again, he found himself face-to-face with a young man: Nicholas Sandmann.
(For his part, the teenager said “I never felt I was blocking the Native American protester. He never made any attempt to go around me. It was clear to me that he had singled me out for a confrontation, although I’m not sure why.”)
Phillips looked into the young man’s eyes. “It’s the youth, the youth that need that song.” He thought. “The youth that need that mother’s heartbeat to remind them who they are and where they come from.” So he sang louder.
way yah hey oh!”
Some of the students facing him got riled up – some chanting, others jumping, more than a few tomahawk chopping.
I asked Phillips what he was thinking and feeling in that moment.
“You know, I’ve had time to think about it and digest the emotions of trauma that was there being re-twigged [sic] in my memory and all the reasons we came there for the Indigenous People’s Gathering. And so, fear, you know? What’s happening to our country? Because I was in prayer and the prayer was about what was happening to our country – to protect us, to look down on us. God, what is happening here between these two groups?”
“They are tearing the fabric of America apart right in front of me. That’s how I was praying, that’s how I was feeling. I’m not trying to be poetic or anything but, it was just – just what was happening in my country, right here on the National Mall: hatred, division. There’s so many words that I wish that I had.”
In an interview he later gave to NBC’s Today Show, Sandmann said he was not trying to be “disrespectful” to Philips, and had every right to stand in front of him. “I respect him, I would like to talk to him,” the teenager said. “In hindsight, I wish we could have walked away and avoided the whole thing.” His lawyers have issued a statement blasting those who had “rushed to condemn and vilify this young man by burying him in an avalanche of false accusations, false portrayals, and cyberbullying that have threatened his reputation and his physical safety”.
By the time we wrap our interview, the employees at Le Caprice had recognized Phillips. They asked if they could give him a hug and pose for a picture. Phillips obliged. He’s been through a lot, but he’s also received a great deal of support.
A few days ago, a local Piscataway man hosted him for a sweat. The Omaha nation wants him to return home so they can host their own ceremony to honor, cleanse and heal him. He plans to return to Standing Rock. And in the Spring, he hopes to trace the Missouri river on foot and pray for the water where the Keystone XL pipeline is scheduled to cross. “This is happening all across the country: hate and division, economic struggle, environment catastrophes, the oil, the water – they don’t mix.”
Phillips still carries anger, trauma and pain, but he says he’s ready to forgive Sandmann and those who he feels have done him wrong.
“Our lot as Indigenous people, which we’re trying to get back to with instructions, is not to return hate with hate but return hate with love.” He told me. “And so that’s what we’ve practiced.”
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